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Aqua Log, Inc. v. Lost and Abandoned Pre-Cut Logs

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Albany Division

March 31, 2015

AQUA LOG, INC., Plaintiff/Salvor,
v.
LOST AND ABANDONED PRE-CUT LOGS AND RAFTS OF LOGS, lying on the bottom of a navigable river within one (1) river mile of a point located at 31 degrees 04.157' North Latitude and 84 degrees 30.746' West Longitude, In rem Defendant, STATE OF GEORGIA, Claimant.

ORDER

W. LOUIS SANDS, Sr., District Judge.

This Court is once again poised to dive back into this case and submerge itself in admiralty law. This matter has returned to this Court on remand from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. That Court reversed this Court's order granting summary judgment in the Claimant's favor on the basis of an absence of admiralty jurisdiction. With guidance from the Eleventh Circuit, the Court now turns to the merits of the pending cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Claimant State of Georgia's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 60) is DENIED and Plaintiff/Salvor Aqua Log's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 62) is GRANTED.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On November 27, 2007, Plaintiff/Salvor Aqua Log, Inc. ("Aqua Log") filed verified complaints in the above-captioned case and had previously filed two companion cases, Case Nos. 1:07-CV-159 (WLS) and 1:07-CV-160 (WLS), against the In Rem Defendant Lost and Abandoned Pre-Cut Logs and Rafts of Logs ("the Logs") under the Salvage Act, 46 U.S.C. § 80101, et. seq. and the Law of Finds. ( See Doc. 1.) The Logs in this case are located within one river mile of a point located at 31° 04.157' N. Lat. and 84° 30.746' W. Long., which is a point on the Flint River. ( Id. at ¶ 3.) Aqua Log seeks to recover the individual logs and attempt to determine the identity of the owner. ( Id. at ¶ 6.) If Aqua Log could identify the owner of the individual log, it would seek a "full and liberal salvage award." ( Id. at ¶ 9.) If the owner of the individual log could not be identified or the log was abandoned, Aqua Log would seek title in the log under the American Law of Finds. ( Id. )

On November 27, 2007, United States Magistrate Judge Richard L. Hodge issued an Order Directing the Issuance of the Warrant of Arrest and/or Summons at the direction of the United States Marshals Service ("USMS"). (Doc. 4.) Aqua Log's President, Jon Ryan Lee, was appointed as substitute custodian to "provide stabilization and preservation together with security, storage and routine services for the safekeeping of the individual logs" at a lower cost than the USMS. (Docs. 6-8.) On November 28, 2007, Aqua Log removed "[o]ne pre-cut log less than 30 feet in length" from the Flint River located within the description of the In Rem Defendant. (Docs. 11 & 12.)

On December 6, 2007, the State of Georgia ("the State") filed a Verified Statement of Right or Interest claiming that it owned all logs, embedded or not, and did not wish for the In Rem Defendant to be salvaged. (Docs. 14 & 15.) On September 30, 2008, the Court denied the State's Motion to Dismiss on the ground that it was not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity because it did not have actual possession of the res. That ruling applied to the companion cases as well. This case was stayed during the appeal of that ruling. (Doc. 45.) On January 28, 2010, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Aqua Log, Inc. v. Georgia, 594 F.3d 1330 (11th Cir. 2010).

On September 30, 2011, the Court granted the State's Motion for Summary Judgment based on the Court's determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the portion of Flint River at issue in this case does not constitute "navigable waters" as that term is used to invoke admiralty jurisdiction. (Doc. 89.) The Court reached the same conclusion in the two companion cases. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the Court's finding that the waterways subject to this action are not navigable. See Aqua Log, Inc. v. Lost & Abandoned Pre-Cut Logs & Rafts of Logs, 709 F.3d 1055 (11th Cir. 2013). After they were given the opportunity to amend their Motions for Summary Judgment, Aqua Log indicated that it wished to stand on its briefs and the State filed an amended memorandum in support of its motion for summary judgment. (Docs. 98-102.) Accordingly, the Court finds that this matter is ripe for review.

FACTUAL HISTORY

I. Introduction

The following facts are derived from the Verified Complaint (Doc. 1), the State's Answer (Doc. 15), the State's Statements of Material Facts (Docs. 60-2 & 66-1), [1] Aqua Log's Statements of Facts (Doc. 62-1 & 78-1), and the Parties' Stipulations (Doc. 60-11), all of which were submitted in compliance with M.D. Ga. L.R. 56, and the record in this case. Where relevant, the factual summary also contains undisputed and disputed facts derived from the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits submitted, all of which are construed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). For reasons that follow, the Court finds that this case does not contain a genuine dispute of material fact.

II. Relevant Facts

The pre-cut submerged logs subject of this action were placed in the Flint River as part of logging operations during the 1800s and early 1900s for transport to lumber mills. (Docs. 60-2 at ¶ 3; 60-11 at 1.) The Logs sank, presumably remained on the river bottom since that time, and were abandoned by their original owners. (Docs. 60-2 at ¶ 4; 60-11 at 2; 62-1 at ¶¶ 1 & 2.) As owner of the waterbottoms of the Flint River where the Logs can be found, the State owns abandoned, embedded logs. (Docs. 1 at ¶ 6; 60-2 at ¶ 7; 60-11 at 2.) Aqua Log only seeks to salvage or obtain title in non-embedded logs. ( See id. )

Sunken logs do not permanently remain in one place but are instead moved by the current and flow of the river.[2] (Doc. 60-2 at ¶ 8.) Although no one is certain of the number of logs comprising the In Rem Defendant, Aqua Log estimates the number to be less than 100. ( Id. ) Despite its ability to do so, Aqua Log has not taken photographs of the Logs, other than of the representative log retrieved by Aqua Log on November 28, 2007, and has not recorded precise GPS coordinates.[3] (Docs. 11, 12 & 60-2 at ¶¶ 9-11.)

The State has been aware of the presence of submerged logs in its waterways since at least 1958. ( See Doc. 60-3.) In 1981, the State enacted the Submerged Cultural Resources Act, Ga. Code Ann. § 12-3-80 et seq. ("SCRA"). (Doc. 60-2 at ¶ 15.) The SCRA defines "submerged cultural resources" as follow:

[A]ll prehistoric and historic sites, ruins, artifacts, treasure, treasure-trove, and shipwrecks or vessels and their cargo or tackle which have remained on the bottom for more than 50 years, and similar sites and objects found in the Atlantic Ocean within the ...

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