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Ninety years after the Titanic sank in the icy North Atlantic, lawyers are still in court fighting over the right to salvage from the shipwreck that’s resting 2 1/2 miles beneath the surface of the sea. The dispute really isn’t over valuables like gold and diamonds that could be recovered from the wreck, maritime lawyer Philip N. Davey said on Dec. 3 at a “Titanic and the Law” seminar sponsored by the University of Houston Law Center. “It’s all about selling tickets,” Davey says of the disputes over salvage rights that spill over from the ocean to the courtroom. Davey was referring to the touring exhibits of items from the Titanic that have been recovered by RMS Titanic Inc., the company that made expeditions to the wreck in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000 and brought back items currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Davey, a partner in Davey & Brogan of Norfolk, Va., spoke at the seminar along with John Ellison, the managing shareholder of Anderson Kill & Olick’s in Philadelphia. Ellison talked about the potential liability issues of the shipwreck. Ellison suggested that modern-day plaintiffs’ lawyers, using the current legal system, would have had a field day with the accident. He said each victim of the shipwreck received only $442 on average in 1916, a “ridiculous” payment by today’s standards. “I’m not a plaintiffs’ lawyer, but that even shocks me,” said Ellison, who does insurance coverage work. The sinking of the ship on its maiden voyage in April 1912 led to 1,595 deaths. There weren’t nearly enough lifeboats on board. Ellison’s firm, Anderson Kill, staged a mock trial in 1998, the Estate of Hans Jensen v. The White Star Line, the operator of the R.M.S. Titanic. But for the approximately 75 people at the seminar, Ellison re-enacted excerpts of testimony, given at inquiries conducted shortly after the disaster, by a U.S. Senate committee and the British Wreck Committee. Reading directly from transcripts of the hearings, Ellison questioned actors playing Charles Lightoller, the ship’s second officer and the highest-ranking survivor of the wreck, and J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s designer. According to Ellison, testimony during the inquiries suggest several areas of claims including negligence for inadequate design of the ship and inadequate materials, inadequate safety measures, failure to provide sufficient notice of damage caused by the ship’s crash, and failure to use the inadequate lifeboats to maximum capacity. Ismay testified, for instance, the decision to reduce the number of lifeboats on the ship — there were 16 compared to 64 in the original design — was to keep the decks open so passengers would have an easier time getting around the ship. And Lightoller testified that he gave orders to lower some of the lifeboats when they were only partially full even though he knew that the number of lifeboats on the ship would accommodate only half the passengers. Ellison says the third-class passengers who paid the lowest passage were apparently discriminated against as a group because many were denied access to the decks where the boats were loading, were excluded from lifeboats or not warned of the danger. Today, that would have been civil rights litigation, he said. He says insurance companies paid claims totaling $5.57 million, but after the British Wreck Committee’s inquiry, litigation was filed in federal court in New York, In Re: The Petition of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. The ship’s owner filed a limitation of liability under admiralty laws, according to Ellison, and a decree was entered in 1916 providing a final distribution of only $663,000 for all Titanic claimants. Ellison suggested that even though admiralty law hasn’t changed much in the past 90 years, other changes in the law, such as development of product liability law, likely would lead to a different result if wrongful-death litigation were tried today. FEBRUARY VOTE Artifacts from the wreck that have been recovered by salvagers likely are worth much more than that $663,000, but R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the salvaging company, can’t sell them without permission from a federal judge. Davey, a lawyer who has handled numerous salvage cases, says the salvage rights of the Titanic are subject to ongoing court battles in Virginia. In 1994, federal judges in Norfolk, Va., gave the Atlanta-based company the sole right to salvage the wreck of the Titanic. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled this year that the R.M.S. Titanic doesn’t own its artifacts. The company is eligible for a salvage award, but a federal judge in Norfolk hasn’t determined the value yet. In September, R.M.S. Titanic announced it planned to give up the right to salvage on the wreck. That decision comes to a vote before the company’s shareholders in February 2003. But an unhappy shareholder wants to prevent the R.M.S. Titanic from giving up the salvage rights, and a federal judge in Norfolk was expected to hear his arguments at a hearing on Dec. 6. Davey says the 4th Circuit has written two opinions in the R.M.S. Titanic litigation that constitute a “nutshell” primer on international salvage law. In fact, in a 2002 opinion in R.M.S. Titanic Inc. v. Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, Davey said the 4th Circuit essentially restated the basic principles of salvage law. In that opinion, the federal appeals court held salvors do not become owners of property they save at sea, but simply become entitled to a reward from the owner for saving the property. Davey has some experience in Titanic litigation. Back in 1992, he represented Marex Titanic Inc. in a salvage action. Marex wanted to conduct robotic salvage from the wreck, but a federal judge in Norfolk ruled that Titanic Ventures, now R.M.S. Titanic, retained rights as “first salvor.” The University of Houston Law Center put together the Titanic seminar at the suggestion of Dean Nancy Rapoport, who told the crowd she has long been interested in the Titanic shipwreck, calling herself a “Titanic freak.” Participants in the two-hour seminar at the museum also saw the Imax movie “Titanica” and saw the Titanic artifact exhibit.

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