Very Little of Cussler's suit against Spence left intact. Cussler Must
Defamation suit by man who claims Hunley find must be refiled in
weeks after federal judge's rulings
Wednesday, February 20, 2002
BY SCHUYLER KROPF
Of The Post and Courier Staff
A federal judge left intact Tuesday some of adventure-author Clive Cussler's defamation suit against Charleston
underwater explorer Lee Spence.
Senior U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr.
rejected Spence's request to have Cussler's case dismissed outright, but he
ordered some of the complaint amended.
Last fall, Cussler filed suit against Spence,
saying Spence's continued claim to have discovered the sunken H.L.
Hunley in 1970 injured the reputation of the three divers who were
ultimately credited by the state with finding the Confederate
He also contended the story harmed the image
of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, the non-profit shipwreck
hunting society he founded.
Spence responded by arguing, among other
things, that his account of finding the sub is protected free speech
and that Cussler, as a public figure, would have to prove malice in
anything he has said about the Hunley or NUMA.
At a motions hearing Tuesday, Blatt sided
with Cussler in some of the objections raised by Spence's legal team.
But Blatt raised questions over whether he
would allow Cussler to introduce as evidence the state Hunley
Commission's report bestowing credit for the discovery on the three
Blatt questioned whether members of a state
agency created to be the caretaker for the rebel sub also possessed
the expertise and legal authority to make such a finding of fact. The
commission's makeup is designated as six lawmakers and three
gubernatorial appointees, none of whom have to be versed in maritime
discovery. "Whether it is admissible into evidence or has any
serious value, I can't say," Blatt said of the commission's
Under its authorizing language, the state
Hunley Commission was empowered to "make a study of the law
regarding the rights to the salvage of the Hunley and any claim that a
person or entity may assert with regard to ownership or control of the
In reviewing Spence's claim - that he found
the Hunley while freeing a stuck blackfish trap - the commission ruled
that the sub had been covered with silt for more than a century and
"it is therefore the opinion of the commission that the casual
discovery of the Hunley by a snagged shrimping net was
Tom Mason, one of Spence's attorneys, agreed
that the Hunley Commission's findings should carry no weight.
"They had no statutory authority to say
who found the Hunley," he told Blatt. "We think they have no
place in the complaint."
Blatt held off on making a ruling on the
And, although Blatt allowed most of Cussler's
complaint to proceed Tuesday, he did order Cussler's legal team to
remove several objectionable parts of the filing that he said appeared
to be included solely to embarrass Spence. For example, Blatt said
that Cussler's promise to give any damages recovered from Spence in
the case to charity appeared to be a publicity stunt. He also said
that including Spence's description of diving for the Hunley clad in
his underwear was meant to bring ridicule.
Cussler has several weeks to re-file his
complaint, and it could be next year before the case goes to trial.
His lawyer, Molly Hughes, said she was pleased with the judge's
Cussler's team reported finding the sub off
Charleston in 1995. It was raised in August 2000 and is now undergoing
preservation efforts at the Warren Lasch Conservation Lab in North
Schuyler Kropf covers state and local
politics. Contact him at email@example.com or 937-5551.