Friday, April 21, 2006

 

Judge to consider motions in SS Republic lawsuit

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The State
By Bruce Smith
April 19, 2006


CHARLESTON, S.C. - A lawsuit stemming from the discovery of the steamer SS Republic and its trove of $75 million in gold coins claims Odyssey Marine Exploration found it using information a South Carolina shipwreck hunter provided.

A state judge was to hear arguments Wednesday over what court should hear the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs, including a company operated by underwater archaeologist Lee Spence, claim breach of contract because neither the treasure nor the credit for finding the vessel in 2003 was shared.

But Odyssey Marine, its president John Morris and two other defendants counter the wreck was found about 90 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga. - nowhere near where Spence's information said it was.

The 210-foot sidewheel steamer, from which 51,000 gold coins were recovered, was taking the money and supplies from New York to New Orleans after the Civil War. It sank in a hurricane on Oct. 25, 1865.

Morris was chairman and chief executive of Seahawk Deep Sea Technologies in 1991 when Spence visited Seahawk's offices in Tampa, Fla., and signed a nondisclosure agreement and a joint venture agreement to search for the wreck, according to court documents.

Aircraft and a vessel operating out of Edisto Inlet on the South Carolina coast searched but found nothing.

A $121 million judgment was entered against Seahawk and another defendant in the case in February after they failed to appear or answer the lawsuit.

Morris and Greg Stemm - Odyssey's vice president and a defendant in the suit - left Seahawk and formed Odyssey in 1994 but did not start looking again for the Republic until 2002, according to court documents.

But the suit alleges the information provided to Seahawk by Spence was later transferred to Odyssey. The other plaintiff in the case is Sea Miners Inc., a company out of Baltimore, Md.

The defendants say South Carolina lacks jurisdiction to hear the case.

Odyssey operates out of Tampa, none of the principals have ever been to South Carolina on business and Odyssey never launched any searches from South Carolina, according to the defendants' motion.

Spence's company, Republic & Eagle Associates, is also incorporated in Florida although its principal place of business is Summerville.

"South Carolina has little interest in adjudicating this dispute because the property in dispute, the gold found in the wreckage of the SS Republic, is found in the state of Florida," said the motion.

A South Carolina court would also be impinging on Florida's right to hear a dispute between two Florida corporations arising from actions that took place there, according to the motion.

A federal judge in Florida awarded ownership of the wreck to Odyssey in early 2004 and the plaintiffs made no claim, the motion noted.

Spence is also involved in a federal lawsuit over the discovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley off South Carolina in 1995.

Clive Cussler's National Underwater & Marine Agency alleged its reputation was injured by Spence's claim he first found the Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship. The South Carolina Hunley Commission has credited Cussler.

Spence countersued and in court documents alleged he suffered $309 million in damages because he was not credited.


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