It has been 110 years since the R.M.S. Titanic infamously sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912. While many are familiar with the tragic accident itself, not many are aware of the numerous lawsuits that followed. In the aftermath of the ship’s sinking, a protracted transatlantic legal battle ensued between the vessel’s British owners and claimants from the United States.
In early 1913, American claimants filed multiple lawsuits in the District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking compensation from the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the parent company of White Star Line. Seeking to limit their liability, the owners of the vessel contended that American, not British, limitations on damages should govern. They argued that their liability should be capped at $91,805.54—the value assigned to the 13 recovered lifeboats and pending freight. Though initially denied by Judge Holt in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, in 1914, the owners successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the applicability of the Limited Liability Act. In a significant portion of the opinion, Justice Holmes wrote:
It is true that the foundation for a recovery upon a British tort is an obligation created by British law. But it is also true that the laws of a forum may may decline altogether to enforce that obligation on the ground that it is contrary to domestic policy, or may decline to enforce it except within which limits as it may impose. It is competent, therefore, to Congress to enact that, in certain matters of admiralty jurisdictions, parties to our courts shall recover only to such extent or in such way that it may mark out.
Despite hundreds of claims seeking more than $16 million in damages, negotiations outside of court led to a total settlement of $664,000 in July of 1916. In exchange for their funds, claimants agreed to end their claims in the United States and England, and acknowledge that the White Star Line “had no ‘privity or knowledge’ of any negligence on the Titanic.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the legal facts surrounding the Titanic’s sinking, please see Kelly‘s earlier post on In Custodia Legis titled “Failure to Update the Law a Titanic Mistake“.
To read more about the Titanic, explore the Library’s Research Guide: Sinking of the Titanic: Topics in Chronicling America.
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