The most tragic of all marine casualties, the sinking of RMS TITANIC, occurred 102 years ago this month. The steamship was bound for New York but sunk April 15, 1912 in international waters off Grand Banks, Newfoundland. The ensuing litigation filed in New York City by plaintiffs (injured and deceased officers, crew and passengers) wound its way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court on a single legal issue involving a U. S. statute which entitles a vessel owner to seek to limit its liability after a marine casualty. The statute was designed in part to encourage investment in shipping by significantly limiting a vessel owners liability by protecting its assets (other than the vessel) from unlimited exposure. In the TITANIC case, for the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court authorized a foreign ship owner to invoke the American limitation of liability statute as a defense to liability claims.
The Supreme Court’s decision, a sea worthy read, can be found at Ocean Steam Navigation Co v. Mellor, 233 US 718 (1914). The court concluded that in the case of a disaster on the high seas, even a foreign owner of a vessel may pursue a limitation of liability proceeding under U.S. admiralty law. The limitation laws at that time limited liability to the post casualty value of the vessel, which in the case of the TITANIC was the meager value of the surviving lifeboats. That sparked an outcry which eventually resulted in changes to the Limitation of Liability Act adopting a limitation dollar amount based on a ship’s overall tonnage as opposed to its post casualty value which could be nil.
Something else seems to have changed in the past 100 years. It seems that ship Captains used to go down with the sinking ship (as the TITANIC Captain did) or at least to be the last one to abandon the ship after all crew and passengers are safely evacuated. Recent tragedies like the sinking of the COSTA CONCORDIA in Italy and the South Korean FERRY have demonstrated that such Captains are looking to ”limit” their exposure to danger. But, being safely ashore is far from being safe from all sorts of other implications, criminal, civil, and moral.