In late 1985, weeks after the wreckage of the RMS Titanic came to light, officials in Washington began seeking legal authority to regulate access to the famous shipwreck as part of a memorial to more than 1,500 passengers and crew perished. in 1912. Congress called for an international treaty, while the wreckage was in international waters. Until then, Congress declared“no person shall physically alter, disturb, or salvage the RMS Titanic.”
As the countries debated a draft treaty, American saviors moved in. Over the years, thousands of artifacts was recovered, including a top hat, bottles of perfume and the deck bell that was rung three times to warn the ship’s bridge of an impending iceberg.
Now, the federal government is taking legal action to assert control over who gets to recover artifacts from the storied liner and, potentially, to block an expedition planned for next year. The move comes as the Titan submersible disaster on June 18 raised questions about who controls access to the wreckage, which lies more than two miles down on the North Atlantic seabed. Legal action is also notable because it pits the legislative and executive branches of government against the judicial branch.
Last Friday, in a federal court in Norfolk, Va., two US attorneys filed a motion to intervene in the decades-old rescue operation. The Virginia court specializes in shipwreck cases and in 1994 granted exclusive salvage rights to RMS Titanic, Inc., based in Atlanta, Ga. The company has recovered many artifacts from the ship and set up several public exhibitions.
The company won salvage rights after the French-American team that discovered the Titanic in 1985 made no recovery claims.
The federal government now seeks to become a party to the rescue case and block any expedition it deems objectionable. It claims the legal right to have the Secretary of Commerce and its maritime unit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, approve or deny permission to the RMS Titanic whenever the “company” seeks court permission to do more artifact recovery.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Ole Varmer, a retired attorney for NOAA who specializes in shipwreck preservation. The federal government, he added, “was forced to intervene as a party and ask the court to enforce these laws.”
RMS Titanic plans to fight federal action. “The company believes that it retains the right to continue to conduct salvage activities at the site of the wreck, without seeking or obtaining approval from any third-parties other than the US District Court that retains jurisdiction over the site of the wreck. destruction,” Brian A. Waingera lawyer for RMS Titanic, in a statement.
Legal experts say the litigation could drag on for years, given the high financial stakes for the company as well as key issues involving international treaties and how government branches are related. of America to each other in legal matters. The case, they said, could end up in the Supreme Court.
“It’s a really interesting question,” said John D. Kimball, a partner at Blank Rome, a law firm in Manhattan, who teaches maritime law at New York University. “This is an attempt by the government to implement the provisions of the agreement and goes into the question of who has authority over the area of destruction. The issues are complex and the decisions are likely to be appealed.”
For a long time, maritime law ruled that finders are keepers. The discoverer of a wreck, in other words, could expect to win possession of much, if not all, of the cargo and treasure. The case of the Titanic became a modern example of that old principle in action.
Correspondingly, slowly and sometimes painfully, the federal government moved to exercise its authority in the case of the Titanic salvage. As directed by Congress, the State Department entered into negotiations with Canada, France and the United Kingdom to draft an international agreement. In 2017, Congress approved law to carry out the agreement. It prohibits “any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the site of the wreck or wreck of the RMS Titanic unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce.”
In late 2019, as France and Canada sat on the sidelines, the agreement entered into force between the United States and the United Kingdom.
A test case emerged in 2020, when the RMS Titanic announced it would try to recover the Marconi wireless telegraph from the ship, famous for sending out distress calls. US attorneys filed a legal challenge in a Virginia court, but the coronavirus pandemic cut short the proceedings and the planned expedition.
This year — on June 13, five days before the Titan submersible disaster claimed the lives of five people descending to view the Titanic wreck — the company again told the court that it planned to take back the Marconi telegraph, and to do so without asking for federal approval. .
The filings were made Friday in a Virginia court by US attorneys Jessica D. Aber and Kent P. Porter the battle over who controls access to the world’s most famous shipwreck has been renewed. RMS Titanic, a US filing, said it “must comply” with federal law enforcement for the international agreement and sought permission from the Commerce Department for any recovery.
The company’s refusal to comply with the law, the filing continued, is “irreparable” to the United States, as it impedes Washington’s ability to implement the international agreement and prevents it “from fulfilling its legal obligations under the federal that law.”
The company has not yet filed a response, and the court has not yet issued a ruling on the federal motion to intervene in the salvage case.