RALEIGH, N.C. — A treasure hunter who accuses the state of North Carolina of misusing his images from Blackbeard’s flagship says he’ll ask for 10 times the damages he originally sought, now that a court ruling has come down in his favor.
John Masters of Florida-based Intersal Inc. says he plans to seek $140 million in damages from the state following the ruling Friday from the North Carolina Supreme Court that the case must return to Business Court.
He said an expert witness had put Intersal’s losses from the state’s use of more than 2,000 images and more than 200 minutes of film at $129 million. He’s seeking another $11 million for losses over a permit that the state denied him, which would have allowed Intersal to search for a Spanish ship.
"What's going to happen is — finally, finally, finally — we can get in front of a judge who can rule on the case on its merits," Masters said in a telephone interview. "That's all we ever wanted."
Almost a quarter-century ago, Masters’ father, Philip, discovered the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground in Beaufort, in what was then the colony of North Carolina, in June 1718. Volunteers with the Royal Navy killed Blackbeard in Ocracoke Inlet that same year.
Intersal found little loot when it located the shipwreck in 1996, but tens of thousands of artifacts have been recovered since then. Intersal and the state have reached two contracts, one in 1998 and another in 2013, that gave the company the rights to photos and videos of the wreck and of the recovery, study and preservation of its historic artifacts.
The company says the state violated the contract by displaying media of artifacts from the ship on websites other than its own without a time code stamp or watermark.
The state, meanwhile, has created a tourist industry around Blackbeard and his ship since the vessel’s discovery in 1996. That includes exhibits at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, which attracts about 300,000 visitors a year, according to the Queen Anne’s Revenge website. The artifacts, such as a 2,000-pound cannon, also go on tour to other state museums. The state also posts photos and videos on websites and social media sites.
The Friday opinion written by Justice Robin Hudson notes that the state didn't argue to the Supreme Court that the 2013 agreement was invalid. And it refers to previous case law to note that the state can't claim sovereign immunity when it has entered into a valid contract.
The state argued that the plaintiffs had to exhaust administrative remedies before going to court, but the Supreme Court ruled that a specific administrative procedure isn’t part of every contract between the state and a private citizen.
Masters, whose father died in 2007, said he sold his house to continue this court fight.
The court also ruled about a permit for the ship El Salvador, which was reported lost off the coast near Cape Lookout during a storm in 1750. The state declined to renew the plaintiff's permit to search for the El Salvador. The state Supreme Court ruled that the Business Court was wrong when it dismissed the claim that the permit denial breached the 2013 settlement agreement between the state and Intersal.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a separate case about Queen Anne’s Revenge on Tuesday. In that case, North Carolina-based Nautilus Productions says the state violated its copyright through use of its photos and videos.
In 2015, state legislator passed a law that made shipwreck videos and photographs in the state’s custody public records. In its lawsuit, Nautilus argued the law should be declared unconstitutional.