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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tenth District: Treasure Hunter’s Original Lawyer Can File Claim for the Gold

One of the original attorneys for the fugitive treasure hunter who recovered gold from an historic shipwreck can file his claim for 1.5 percent of the total value, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The Tenth District Court of Appeals reversed a Franklin County Common Pleas Court decision that barred Columbus attorney Robert M. Hoffman for making a claim for proceeds of the recovered treasure because he filed his claim six months after the deadline.

Hoffman presented the trial court letters between him and Tommy Thompson, who formed Recovery Limited Partnership (RLP) in 1985 to search and recover gold and other treasure from the S.S. Central America that wrecked in 1857. Hoffman said Thompson offered him 1.5 percent the net recovery for prior and future legal and business consulting work. For years, Thompson eluded law enforcement officials seeking him to account for the whereabouts of all the treasure. He was captured in January, and this week he told a U.S. District Court holding him in contempt that he would cooperate with authorities.

To manage the recovery, Thompson formed two companies, Columbus Exploration LLC and RLP. More than 160 investors, including the Dispatch Printing Company, invested more than $12 million to fund the exploration. After the initial recovery of gold in the late 1980s, a lengthy legal dispute ensued regarding the ownership of the treasure, and eventually entities representing RLP were granted 92.5 percent ownership of the treasurer. At the time some of treasure had been brought to the surface, and some is still in the process of being recovered. Experts have estimated the total value from the shipwreck could exceed $100 million.

Concerned that Columbus Exploration and RLP were nearing bankruptcy, the investors filed suit in Franklin County in 2005, and won the right to have a court-appointed receiver take over the management decisions of the exploration companies. Receiver Ira O. Kane identified and sent letters to 86 possible claimants who had a stake in the treasure. Following local court rules, he placed a notice in the Columbus Dispatch, and additionally in the Wall Street Journal, seeking others who believe they had a claim. The deadline to file was Jan. 7, 2014.

Hoffman, who filed his claim in June 2014, argued the newspaper notice was insufficient to reach those who didn’t receive a letter from Kane. The trial court originally granted his motion for leave to file a claim instanter, but later reversed its original decision deeming Hoffman was unable to demonstrate “excusable neglect” for missing the deadline. Hoffman appealed to the Tenth District Court of Appeals.

Writing for the court, Judge Gary Tyack explained that “excusable neglect” is defined not by what it is, but rather what it is not -“inexcusable neglect” - which can be labeled as a “complete disregard for the judicial system.” Judge Tyack wrote an attorney’s claim of excusable neglect must be determined by Ohio’s civil case rules that attempt to “strike a proper balance between the conflicting principles that litigation must be brought to an end and justice should be done,” and requires looking at the circumstances of each case.

“We note this is a very large and complicated case, made more so by Thomas Thompson’s complete disregard for the American judicial process,” Judge Tyack wrote.

Judge Tyack questioned whether in the digital age providing legal notice in print media was adequate, and pointed to a Hofstra University Law Review article proposing that legal notices placed online would be superior to print.

“Social media, whether in blogs, Facebook or Twitter, has pushed aside the more traditional news sources like the mainstream local and national print newspapers,” he wrote. “We do not find that Hoffman’s inactions in not filing a claim before the claim bar date when there is no evidence that he had any actual knowledge of such a deadline, constitute a complete disregard for the judicial system.”

Judge Timothy S. Horton concurred in the decision.

Judge Betsy Luper Schuster dissented arguing that the digital age has made the reach of news so widespread and that she found “it all the more difficult to believe that even if Hoffman did not see the newspaper notices, he somehow remained completely unaware of Thompson absconding or the various legal actions surrounding the recovery of the gold.”

“Hoffman knew no later than Nov. 11, 1999, that Thomas Thompson had recovered substantial gold from the S.S. Central America. Nonetheless, Hoffman never made a claim against the entities now in receivership between 1985 to 1999, or between 1999 and June 27, 201,” Judge Luper Schuster wrote.

She also noted the trial court followed the local rules in publishing the notice in the Dispatch and that Hoffman’s attorneys stated he lived in the Columbus area at the time the notice was published.

Dispatch Printing Co. v. Recovery Ltd. Partnership, 2015-Ohio-1368
Civil Appeal From: Franklin County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: April 7, 2015

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