After Titanic: Huge Disaster, Huge Lawsuits!

This Friday, it will be 105 years since the sinking of the Titanic. Likely the best-known disaster of the 20th century, Titanic has a special place in pop culture and historical memory, mostly thanks to James Cameron’s epic 1997 film. Our culture’s celebration of Titanic is unique, because we romanticize the drama and intrigue of the sinking, yet still recognize that it was a horrible tragedy that resulted in thousands of deaths. To commemorate the tragedy, we’re approaching it the only way we can — by talking about the lawsuits, of course!

The Unsinkable Ship

Let’s recap: The RMS Titanic was a passenger line manufactured by White Star Line. It set off from Southampton, England on April 12, 1912. The ship was on its “maiden voyage,” meaning that it was the ship’s first journey. It was meant to arrive in New York City on April 17th.  Titanic carried hundreds of wealthy passengers, along with many immigrants from European countries, who were hoping to make their way in America.

On April 14th, Titanic hit an iceberg about 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The collision caused massive damage to the hull of a ship, and resulted in flooding. The ship had about 1,788 lifeboats — which was only slightly more than half of the number of passengers on the boat. It was way less than was required, due to outdated maritime laws. Additionally, due to panic and poorly planned emergency procedure, many of the lifeboats left the sinking Titanic without reaching full occupancy, leaving people stranded on the ship.

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Two hours after the initial collision, in the early hours of April 15th, the ship broke apart and sank. Around 1,635 people died in the disaster.  Most of the victims died from drowning or exposure to the freezing Atlantic Ocean.  Less than one-third of the people on board survive. A disproportionate number of victims came from the third-class level of the ship, and males accounted for a large number of victims, due to a “woman and children first” policy.

Of course, you probably know a lot of this already. But what do you know about the lawsuits that followed?

If a ship like Titanic went down today, there would undoubtedly be a ton of lawsuits, covering everything from wrongful death to loss of property. In 1912, things weren’t really that different. Following the sinking of Titanic, surviving victims, or the family members of victims, filed claims that totaled about $16 million.

One of the best documented claimants is Anna Sofia Sjoblom, a Finnish immigrant. She made it into a lifeboat, but was injured when another escaping passenger jumped into the lifeboat after her, landing on her head and causing spinal damage. Many others likely suffered traumatic injuries like Sjoblom’s, while others undoubtedly suffered mental anguish from the event. Many others lost family members and property. Though Sjoblom’s case shows the plight of a third-class passenger, it’s likely that many of the claims came from the upper-class passengers. They were more likely to have expensive property on board, and the means and education to purse a lawsuit.

The Issue of Forseeability

However, White Star Line argued that the iceberg collision was unforeseeable. This is an argument that we still see in a lot of cases today, particularly premise liability cases. Foreseeability, as the same implies, refers to the ability to anticipate an accident or injury. For example, it seems fair to say that Titanic didn’t anticipate hitting the iceberg. However, the ship should have should have considering the possibility of an accident. Therefore, they should have included enough lifeboats for all passengers, and had a disaster plan in place. By ignoring common safety practices, based on their belief that Titanic was unsinkable, the ship was being negligent.

Who Was Liable?

There were also discrepancies over who, or what, was to blame for the sinking. Some pointed fingers at Edward Smith, the captain of the ship. He was accused of failing to slow down when the iceberg was in the path of the ship, worsening the impact of the collision. Similarly, J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, was also accused of encouraging Smith to travel faster, hoping to make their voyage in record time. Design flaws, particularly those concerning the rudder of the ship, were also blamed for the disaster. With so many factors — and relatively little evidence about what actually happened — it was difficult for victims to file a lawsuit against any particular party.

Due to these factors, the company managed to pay a total of $664,000. This sum was was meant to be shared among all the defendants. This was a woefully unfair settlement even back then. But without organized representation and solid evidence, there was little than the victims could do.

Learning From History

If Titanic sunk today, the legal ramifications would likely be very different, though they would be similar at the core. Today, along with lawsuits against the captain and manufactures, there would likely be discrimination lawsuits on behalf on the poorer passengers, who could argue that their safety was compromised by their social status. The damages claims, both for loss of life and property, would likely be a lot higher, too.

Thankfully, we’ve learned from the Titanic disaster. Passenger cruise lines now account for the possibility of disaster. They have adequate lifeboats, trained staff, and an emergency plan in place. It’s incredibly unlikely that a full-scale disaster like the sinking of the Titanic will happen again. We may never let go of our romanticized depiction of Titanic, but it’s good to know that today’s ship are safer, more effective, and thanks to modern technology, way less likely to have a run-in with an iceberg.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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