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Iceberg, right ahead!

The Titanic disaster of 1912 has long fascinated the American public, spawning thousands of historical books and documentaries, and providing the setting for a plethora of fictional stories on page and screen. But have you ever thought about all of the legal ramifications of the disaster? Here’s a look at some of the ways law has played into the Titanic story.

A print of the alleged iceberg in question

The alleged iceberg in question, titanic-iceberg.com

The earliest cases to appear in United States courts are admiralty petitions, merely captioned “The Titanic.” One from 1912 was involved with settling the estate of a passenger who went down with the ship (204 F. 295). Two more, from 1913, dealt with technical questions regarding the tonnage of the ship and the possible limitation of liability for the White Star Lines. The question of tonnage was an issue at British law, not United States law, and the judge in that case declined to declare the tonnage (204 F. 298). In the second case, the judge declined to limit White Star’s liability (209 F. 501). Exciting – such is the stuff movies are made of! Hm, or not.

Believe it or not, there is much more recent litigation involving the doomed ship. The more recent cases tend to deal with salvage issues, raised by the “salvor,” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. Since the ship’s resting site was identified in the 1980s, rights to the property have been at issue. In 1998 R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., tried to prevent anyone else from visiting & photographing the wreckage. While the lower court’s opinion was affirmed in part, and remanded, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court “insofar as they purport to prohibit the visiting, viewing, searching, surveying, photographing, and obtaining images of the wreck or the wreck site.” 171 F.3d 943 (4th Cir. 1999). A 2002 case, also in the Fourth Circuit, held that the salvor of the items did not have the right to sell them. (R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, 286 F. 3d 194 (4th Cir. 2002) (see the gift shop at the R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., web site, featuring “artifact replicas,” “replica china” and “authentic coal”). While probably any authentic artifacts from the Titanic would sell at a huge price, some of what went down was already priceless. For more about the international aspects ownership of art and cultural property and salvage, see the PCL’s Art Law research guide.

Titanic on the Ocean Floor

Titanic on the Ocean Floor, from National Geographic

In addition to the maze of case law surrounding the Titanic, there were of course Congressional publications. Hearings were held in April and May, 1912 – totaling nearly 1200 pages of text, maps and tables. Six weeks after the sinking, a much shorter Senate Report investigating the tragedy was published, and includes lists of the crew and passengers, as well as speeches by two Senators. And on June 4, 1912, the captain and crew of the rescuing vessel Carpathia were officially thanked by Congress (H.rp.830), and given medals of honor (62 H.J.Res.306).

This is only a taste of the many official documents involved with the legal aspects of the Titanic disaster. Because remember – for each action, there is an equal reaction!

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