Champlin v United States

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 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.

Question: Consider what this rule might mean to businesses, particularly those that contract with the government. Consider, for example, a store or outlet that purchases federal/military surplus. What provisions might they need to include in a contract that might not be required in a typical commercial or consumer contract?

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Directly, the rule might mean that any business that is dealing with the government must have a clause that property in the military surplus/federal surplus is transferred to the contractor by the express permission of the Congress.

On another level Doug Champlin was not a contractor for the US government. He had purchased the salvage site of his own volition and spent money to recover the salvage again of his own volition. It is his responsibility to ascertain if the property he has found is de facto "abandoned" and that if he recovers the plane, he will get the tile to the Navy TBD-1 Devastator. The point is that Champlin should have known that only the Congress has the authority to abandon federal property.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

This situation is different from that of a federal contract where an agency takes steps to enter into a contract with private contractors. Champlin was not a contractor for the federal government. On the other hand disposal of federal or military surplus is an action taken by the federal agency in accordance to well established norms of the government. Often a formal tendering process is involved. When a federal agency is created, powers are vested in the agency. These include the powers to ...