U. S. Circuit Court

We are familiar with the saying ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers’, since our early childhood, where this adopted unwritten law saw the finder keep whatever he found leaving the loser literally crying. School playground apart, the law has different ways of deciding ownership of lost property, based on several aspects of the property. Apart from loser and finder, another person who may also have a stake in the property is the landowner, where property is found. To understand the laws on claiming property, we must understand the nature of the development of these.

The American common law governing property rights have been adapted from the twelfth century England, where the concept of ‘treasure trove’ applied. Here the right of newfound property lay only with the king. After independence, the United States transferred this right of the king to the right of the finder. This rule however was restricted only to treasure findings, and the rights to all other archeological material findings rested only with the landowner. In recent years even the ‘treasure’ is combined with other archeological materials granting the land owner exclusive rights to all material findings.

This right of the landowner to material findings is however subject to the fact that the owner had no intention of discarding them. There are several instances of old military artifacts like ships found on American seas, being returned to the countries to which they belonged, although it had been lying here submerged for centuries. On September 1, 1943, Douglas TBD-1 Devastator (Bureau No. 0353) on a training mission developed a snag east of Miami and sunk about eight miles off the coast. Six days later the plane was struck off the navy roster.

The devastator played a very important role in US naval aviation history. Designed as a torpedo-bomber, the TBD-1 was the first carrier based monoplane of the US navy. On September 30, 1944 the last TBD was taken off from the navy roster, with no known examples of the Douglas TBD-1 aircaft today. The legal tussle between Collector Doug Champlin and the Navy over the ownership of the lost or abandoned plane can be debated endlessly. Champlin’s arguments are that he ventured into this only after the Navy declined the offer of Weeden (the marine salvage company that found the Devastator).

Champlin had initially wanted to trade the Devastator with the National Museum of Naval Aviation (NMNA) for two unrestored Grumman Wildcats. With the 11th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against his ownership, he now claims his expenses of $130,000. 00 to recover the plane. Without any doubt, the Devastator has a huge national value, the interests of which needs to be maintained above all private interests. Although the Navy had refused Weeden’s offer, this would not amount to abandonment of property. The Navy on behalf of the country retained the ownership of the plane and could salvage it at its own convenience.

Champlin’s reimbursement claim response is based on whether the Navy has a provision to allow or fund for private salvages and even if it has, the terms of the salvage should obviously be negotiated beforehand. This is to ensure and confirm that the Navy does not have the expertise to handle the particular job and has thus been leased out. Another important aspect of the Devastator is that there is no commercial value attached for the Navy to benefit; that it needs to make a monetary compensation. Some countries even have laws that prohibit private salvage or recovery, to ensure ownership and damage prevention.

The rights of the government outweigh the rights of individuals, particularly when it comes to doing business. The rules governing businesses between two parties are not the same when doing business with government. Care has been taken to ensure a loss proof and minimal cost environment to the government. Adding a provision to indicate the nature and circumstances involved in the conversion of federal property to private property can benefit commercial and consumer contracts. The contracts can be further strengthened by adding favorable provisions, which would come into force, in case ownership is reversed for any reason.