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.

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

Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate's News Channel on YouTube.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 1:01 PM Can Activists Save Reyhaneh Jabbari?  
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM The Many Faces of Texas
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.