CINCINNATI (CN) – The 6th Circuit revived a salvage-rights dispute between the state of Michigan and an exploration company claiming to have found the wreckage of The Griffin, which sank in Lake Michigan in the 1670s.
Commanded by French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, The Griffin was one of the first sailing ships to navigate the Great Lakes. It was last seen on Sept. 18, 1670, when it set sail for Niagara.
The Great Lakes Exploration Group, claiming to have recovered a bit of history, filed an admiralty action seeking an arrest warrant for The Griffin, a procedure used to ensure federal jurisdiction. But before the court could arrest the ship, the state – through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of History, Arts and Libraries – intervened.
Michigan obtained a court order requiring GREG to disclose the location of the ship so that it could determine whether the vessel was “embedded” in the state’s submerged lands within the meaning of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. If so, Michigan would be able to lay claim to the wreckage.
But GREG refused, fearing that the state would claim 11th Amendment immunity and divest the district court of jurisdiction.
The district court then dismissed GREG’s admiralty action without prejudice for failure to comply with a court order.
The appellate court vacated dismissal and remanded, ruling that the district court should have arrested The Griffin before forcing GLEG to disclose the vessel’s precise location.
GLEG must reveal the location, however, when there is a clear need to do so – in this case, to settle the shipwreck’s disputed embedded status.
Although a federal court may “require a salvor to reveal the precise location of a vessel after a state has intervened to assert a claim under the ASA,” Judge Gilman wrote, “the court must first ensure that the state cannot divest the federal court of jurisdiction.”