The Case of the Lost and Found “Devastator”

A Group Project

Fundamentals of Business Law

Unit 5

May 24, 2004

The Case of the Lost and Found “Devastator”


In 1943, During World War II, a Navy TBD-1 Devastator crashed eight miles off the coast of Florida. The entire crew survived and there is no indication that any efforts were made to locate the plane by the Navy. Collector Doug Champlin, the owner of an airplane museum in Arizona spent approximately $130,000.00 to recover the plane. The problem has to do with ownership. He claims to be the owner of the lost/abandoned plane. The Navy claims ownership and wants to put the plane in the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Naval Air Station. The TBD-1 Devastator has significant historical value as no Devastators survived the war.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that only Congress can order the abandonment of federal property. Hence the Navy owns the plane. Mr. Champlin doesn\'t mind giving the plane back to the Navy; he just wants to be reimbursed. The Navy is hesitant to pay and Mr. Champlin is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court[1].


In order to gain a firm understanding of the specifics of this case, it is important to know the legal definitions of lost property, misplaced property and abandoned property. The definitions area as follows:

1. Lost Property: Property is considered lost when its owner negligently, carelessly, or inadvertently leaves it somewhere.

2. Misplaced Property: Property is misplaced, when its owner voluntarily places the property somewhere and then inadvertently forgets it.

3. Abandoned Property: Property is classified abandoned if (1) an owner discards the property with the intent to relinquish his or her rights in it or (2) an owner of mislaid or lost property gives up any further attempts to locate it.

The Airplane: Lost, Misplaced, or Abandoned?

One of the most crucial questions to be answered before a decision can be made in this case is the status of the airplane. Is the airplane lost, misplaced or simply abandoned? In most states, a finder of property must attempt to locate the owner, publish notices regarding the property, and inform the proper local agency of the finding of the property. Generally most states allow for the finder to recover the property if all of these provisions have been met and the owner does not come forward within 3-4 months (1 & 2).

Where planes are involved, the assertion of ownership becomes a bit different. Many states, through their own legislative processes, have claimed rights to wreckage of planes by enacting antiquity laws. These laws allow for the property to be considered abandoned after 50 years and qualify as antique to the state. Alaska has acquired many civilian and military aircraft in this manner.

If the remains of a crash are on public land or waterways, it becomes complicated due to the fact that the plane that crashes will need to be removed quickly and can be thought of as an environmental issue (3). Therefore if the company owning a crashed plane does not retrieve its property within a reasonable period of time, the federal government, a state, or an individual may have the right to salvage the remains under environmental protection laws.

So while most property can be placed in one of the three categories of property law, planes are a different issue and thus can not, in of it self, be classified as lost, misplaced or abandoned. Each case would have to be determined based on its individual situation.

Special Rules for Federal Property: Necessary or Not?

Are special rules required for cases such as this? Perhaps the federal government should have special rules, or certain laws to protect its property, especially if this property is historically significant and is to be placed in a museum. In this case, it may be appropriate for the Navy to reimburse Mr. Champlin if he is able to provide verifiable documentation of costs incurred during the recovery of the plane. Should the Navy decide to donate the plane to him at some later date, the conflict might be settled.

Some would say that the Navy should have taken more responsible to recover the plane and that in this circumstance Mr. Champlin should be able to