When Does a Shipwreck Become Sunken Treasure?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 18 2012 6:25 PM

A Cruise Ship's Sunken Treasure

Will the passengers from the Costa Concordia ever get their belongings back?

Costa Concordia wreckage.
Costa Concordia

Photograph by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images.

Salvage companies began to work on the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia on Tuesday. The ship itself is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but there is likely a small fortune in personal property in the cabins. More than 4,000 people fled the ship, leaving behind cash, jewelry, and other items. How long would that stuff have to stay at sea to become sunken treasure?

Several years, if not decades. Legal title to a shipwreck hinges on whether the owner has abandoned the vessel (PDF). Abandoned ships are fair game to treasure hunters, and the first diver to take possession of the wreck gets to keep the all the booty. If the owner hasn’t abandoned the ship, the finder is entitled only to a fee based on the risk and effort involved in recovering it. What constitutes abandonment depends on the case, but a shipwreck typically has to sit on the bottom of the sea for years or decades with no attempts at salvage before a court will declare it and its cargo abandoned. That’s extremely unlikely to happen to the Costa Concordia. Much of the ship remains above water, and its owners are actively trying to recover it.

So what will happen to the property still on the Costa Concordia? If marine engineers are able to right the ship and tow it to safety, Costa Cruises will collect the undamaged property from the cabins and return it to the passengers. That’s what happened when the Empress of the North was evacuated after foundering 50 miles southwest of Juneau, Alaska, in 2007.

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Then there’s the lost and damaged property—and there may be a lot of it. Passengers can file claims with the cruise line for their missing possessions, but those who haven’t taken out trip insurance are probably going to be disappointed. Most cruise ticket contracts limit the company’s liability for lost or damaged goods. The standard cap is $150 per piece of luggage, not to exceed a per-passenger total of $500. (Passengers can raise the limit to $5,000 if they notify the cruise line in advance that the value of their baggage exceeds the boilerplate limits, although very few bother to do so.) The contracts often explicitly disclaim any liability for cash and expensive items like jewelry and electronics.

In addition, the cruise lines are notoriously slow in responding to claims. They often insist on corresponding by postal mail only. Passengers who have filed injury and property damage claims say it takes a minimum of three weeks for an initial response, and the company often drags the process out by repeatedly asking for additional evidence.

There’s very little a disappointed passenger can do about the liability caps and delays. Most plaintiffs’ attorneys work on a contingency basis. Since courts have historically upheld the liability limits, they’re reluctant to take these cases. The best passengers can hope for is that the cruise line voluntarily waives the caps as a public relations move.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mike Lacey of the International Salvage Union; Eric Morales of Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A.; and Miami Maritime attorney Jim Walker, author of the Cruise Law News blog.

Video Explainer: Are Shipwreck Evacuation Rules Really "Women and Children First"?

This video was produced from an original Explainer by Brian Palmer

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.