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110 Years Later: Titanic Lawsuits Follow Tragedy

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Headline reads: "Titanic Claims Must be Settled by English Court"
Excerpt from the front page of The Evening World (New York, NY), April 21, 1913. (Source: Library of Congress Chronicling America collection)

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.”

Itemized list of items claimed as lost during the sinking of the Titanic
Itemized list provided by Charlotte Drake Cardeza of property lost in Titanic tragedy. (Source: National Archives, Records of District Courts of the United States)

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.

Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law. 

Comments (3)

  1. Hi, as someone who lost two members of family on the Titanic, I know our family at the time received little to no compensation. Is it possible to get retrospective compensation albeit over 100 years ago?

  2. Dear Mrs:

    I am a decendant of one of the victims of the sinking of the Titanic,after rading your great essay,I ask You,Am I entitled to any compensaciĆ³n?

    Thank you.

  3. I think it’s quite clear that Bruce himself had a direct impact on the sinking of the ship because he chose substandard metal for the rivets which were easily sheared off scraping against the ice. They analyzed some of the 12 rivers which were recovered and metallurgy tests were woefully inadequate and very poor quality metal. He chose to lower the bulk heads because it didn’t require higher bulk heads on the unsinkable ship. They just didn’t really understand ship building well enough to even declare something unsinkable. If the rivets were stronger it may well have live up to the moniker but it’s like everything it’s only as strong as it’s weaknesses. In the end the panels were strong but the connections were not. Unfortunately, the tremendous impact and loss of life makes it a true tragedy for which he was never held legally or financially responsible. Even though he could legally avoid responsibility. He did not escape the public scorn for such a cowardly act as being one of the only men to survive so many other perished. Not much of a man in my book. He was the reason why the unsinkable ship had 16 life boats and not the required 48 as the passenger list would determine. It didn’t need life boats because it was a boat of life itself he said in the inquest. Just sheer arrogance and huberous which gave way to depression in later in life. In the end he got no credit for designing two of the world’s first unsinkable ships both of which sank along with his reputation as deservedly earned by his cowardly and foolish decisions. If his family wants to defend this coward then they just want to hide the truth of his shameful behavior and cowardly actions.

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