Making a case for Titanic

Andrew
Andrew Robinson
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St. John's lawyer considers how lawsuit would fare today

St. John's lawyer Ches Crosbie gave a talk Tuesday at the Johnson Geo Centre on lawsuits pertaining to the sinking of the Titanic. - Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram

The tragic maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people after it struck an iceberg and sank.

With so much loss tied to the event, why didn't wealthy families who lost loved ones, such as the Astors, Guggenheims and Strauses, file claims?

And why did inquiries looking into the disaster only highlight operational errors, with no blame placed on the owner or the company that built the ship?

St. John's lawyer Ches Crosbie answered those questions and many others during a presentation Tuesday at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John's.

The event was the first in a series of talks to take place this year at the geological interpretation centre to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking.

Crosbie traced problems for the ship - initially thought to be unsinkable - back to what he called "the greed and avarice" of J.P. Morgan, the man who financed the parent company of White Star Line, Titanic's owner.

Morgan wanted to dominate the North Atlantic shipping business and create a monopoly to control prices. In the process of doing so, Crosbie said, Morgan elected to trump competition by building three large vessels, including the Titanic, 50 per cent larger than any other vessel at the time.

While Capt. Edward Smith could be blamed for operational aspects contributing to the ship's demise - including a 20-minute wait before ordering passengers to board lifeboats - the Titanic's owner and builder were also at fault, according to Crosbie.

Corners were cut prior to the ship's departure from England. The Titanic required 48 lifeboats to accommodate the 2,200 people on board. Sixteen wooden boats and four collapsible boats were on board when it sank. According to Crosbie, the owners thought the lifeboats would only be needed to ferry passengers from the Titanic to another ship in a worst-case scenario.

Upon striking the iceberg that spelled the beginning of the end for the Titanic, one-third of the vessel's side grazed it. Plates for the ship were initially designed to be one-and-a-quarter-inch thick, but White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay ordered that the plate be reduced by one-quarter inch. The use of lighter steel would result in lower fuel costs.

Crosbie said aside from there being a "colossal regulatory failure" in the handling of the Titanic, there was also a rescue failure on the part of the SS Californian, which had its wireless turned off that night and did not respond to the Titanic's call for assistance until the next morning, by which point the ship had long sunk.

Two inquiries were held shortly after the Titanic's sinking - one by the American Senate, and another by the Board of Trade in the United Kingdom. Both focused on the navigational decisions of the ship's captain, who died with his ship.

Crosbie suggests White Star Line, shipbuilder Harland and Wolff, and the SS Californian could have been found liable for damages. At the time, rescuers were not known to be liable in such cases, he said.

Wealthy families did not file any claims in relation to the sinking of the Titanic simply because, in those days, people did not place a monetary value on loss of life, according to Crosbie.

All U.S. claims filed at the time were consolidated into one case. They settled for an amount of more than $600,000, four per cent of their initial claim of $16 million.

Crosbie said what complicated matters at the time was that lawyers were not allowed to advertise their services for injury claims.

"That has an influence on access to justice," he said.

Today under marine liability, Crosbie said, claims for psychological distress can be made, which would certainly have been applicable to circumstances surrounding the Titanic, with survivors watching so many people perish in dramatic fashion.

However, he said, in marine law a diagnosis of injury is required, and without that, no such claim could be made.

In the case of a collision, liability is presumed today, as was not the case in 1912, he added.

Crosbie believes it was also easier to hide facts 100 years ago, and said the ability to file class-action suits in modern times makes the playing field more even.

"A disaster like the Titanic, if you were to sue on it in court today, the saying is that good facts make good law, and there is an opportunity for aggressive lawyering to make a difference ... and make it more amenable to a just outcome."

arobinson@thetelegram.com Twitter: TeleAndrew

 

Organizations: RMS Titanic, Johnson Geo Centre, J.P. Morgan American Senate Board of Trade in Harland and Wolff

Geographic location: St. John's, North Atlantic, England United Kingdom U.S.

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  • JJT
    February 11, 2012 - 09:51

    So "justice" = "money"? I like this part: "Wealthy families did not file any claims in relation to the sinking of the Titanic simply because, in those days, people did not place a monetary value on loss of life, according to Crosbie." This is, of course, diametrically opposite to now, where thanks to lawyers there's a monetary value placed on absolutely everything.

    • Ed Hong
      February 11, 2012 - 17:31

      It was approximately four months ago that I saw an advertisement in a Telegram edition (about 1/8 page ad) looking for names of people who might want to be a party to the class action suit against the provincial government in the case of moose vehicle accidents... I was appalled that a lawyer, of such impeccable standards would descend to such a level as to try and garner more respondeants to the suit when in the final analysis, he was really only fattening his own wallet with every claimant. In reality, he was asking Newfoundlanders to sue other Newfoundlanders because it would only be our tax dollars that inevitably pay if his money grab were successful... What next? If a squirrel crosses the road and a driver panics, is that yet another suit pending?? Oh, I forgot, he's looking to go back in history to suit J.P. Morgan for the sinking of the Titanic...Tough luck!!!