Monday, July 11, 2005

Law students undertake Titanic trial

Last week ten students at Baylor presented a mock trial in which families of victims sue the Titanic's owner, its builder, and the manufactuer of its radio equipment. The mock trial culminated a required trial practice class. Law students undertake Titanic trial, Waco Tribune-Herald. A press release from the law school has more information about the class.

The Waco newspaper stated: "The U.S. and British governments conducted inquiries into the sinking, but no lawsuits went to court." That's not exactly right. In fact, there was a bench trial in the U.S. (settled after closing arguments) and a jury trial in England. (Before the U.S. trial, there was litigation, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, over whether the U.S. Limitation of Shipowners' Liability Act applied to a foreign-flagged vessel. The Supreme Court held that it did.) See Robert D. Peltz, The Titanic's Legacy: The History and Legal Developments Following the World's Most Famous Maritime Disaster, 12 U.S.F. Mar. L.J. 45, 51-58 (1999-2000).

Even if it's not true that there were NO trials related to the Titanic, it's certainly safe to say that there was nowhere near the litigation there would have been today -- and the lawyers certainly didn't use the computer simulations the Baylor students used.

Much of the litigation over losses arising from the TITANIC disaster was filed in the United States. It has been estimated that the total claims actually filed for loss of life and property damage amounted to only $16 million, which would be the equivalent of over $275 million today. Had the disaster occurred today, potential claims would certainly total much more than $275 million. The relatively low figure can be explained by differences in attitudes toward litigation for personal injuries and wrongful death in 1912 and today. Most socially prominent families of the time thought it demeaning to "put a price tag on a gentleman's life." For example, the Astor, Widener, Guggenheim, and Strauss families filed no claims for the deaths of these extremely wealthy and prominent men. While the Thayer family filed a claim for their lost luggage, they did not file a claim for the death of John Thayer. The widow of Broadway producer Henry B. Harris filed the largest claim, in the amount of $1 million.
Id. at 51-52 (footnotes omitted).

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