Fourth Circuit Rules Against Titanic Salvors

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA , January 31, 2006 — The Fourth Circuit handed down an order today in an appeal involving salvage rights to the RMS Titanic.  The ruling largely affirms a district court’s decision denying the salvor a change in status that would have enabled the salvor to claim title to certain artifacts. The case is RMS Titanic Inc. v. Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel.

The salvor of the Titanic‘s artifacts, a company named RMS Titanic, Incorporated, has conducted salvage operations on the sunken vessel for many years.  Since no claimants had come forward to assert actual ownership interests over the artifacts brought up from the sea floor, the salvor petitioned the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to convert its status to that of a finder.

The district court rejected the salvor’s request, noting that it had received the benefit of exclusive salvage rights for years under maritime law (which treats the salvor favorably, because it is performing a service for the owner or the public).  The salvor sought to have the artifacts, indeed the entire sunken vessel, treated under the law of finds, which the appellate court today likens to the ancient and venerated legal doctrine of “finders, keepers.”  If it had prevailed, it would have obtained ownership and control over the artifacts, including those still at the bottom of the sea, and the district court would no longer have any supervisory role.

This is by no means a complete loss for the salvor, as it still has the right to seek an award of a salvage “fee” from the district court.  The case is now remanded to Norfolk for a determination of the amount of the salvage award.

About L. Steven Emmert

Appellate lawyer L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach authors the Web site “Virginia Appellate News & Analysis” at .  He is available to the media as an Expert Resource for comment, analysis, and help wading through the legalese of the ruling at (757) 965-5000.  Emmert is also Chairman of the Appellate Practice Subcommittee for the Virginia State Bar’s Litigation Section.


L. Steven Emmert contact , (757) 965-5000