Everyone knows the story of the Titanic, but not many people know about the lawsuits that followed.
If you didn’t know, today is the 104-year anniversary of the Titanic disaster. One of the social media posts I saw on the topic had a comment “If the Titanic disaster happened today, there would be so many lawsuits.” While this statement is supposed to be a condemnation of today’s “litigious society,” it shows a (quite common) misunderstanding of the civil justice system. If everyone owned up to their mistakes, played fair and paid for the harms they’ve caused, we wouldn’t have to file lawsuits. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. A lawsuit is oftentimes the only way of compelling a negligent company to pay for the harm that they’ve caused.
Does it surprise you to learn that, yes, in fact there were many lawsuits filed as a result of the RMS Titanic disaster? When the Titanic sank, leading to the loss of life and property, surviving passengers and the relatives of those who had died filed a levy of claims against the transport company which sold tickets to the mega ship’s maiden voyage.
Among the claimants was Anna Sofia Sjöblom, a passenger who was fortunate enough to make it out alive after being thrown off the deck and into one of the lifeboats as the ship sunk. She had spent most of her time on the ship in her bunk due to sea sickness. Unfortunately, one of the crew members also jumped onto her lifeboat and landed on her head, leaving her with extensive head and spine injuries.
$16 million in claims.
The survivors of this tragedy (and the families of those killed) filed claims totaling about $16 million (though some reports say $13M). However, the shipping company which operated the Titanic at the time contested the claims, alleging that there was a clause within the passenger tickets which absolved them of liability. Additionally, they stated that circumstances leading to the accident were unforeseeable. Lastly, it was claimed that things like visibility, warning telegrams and whether or not the Titanic’s safe speed limits were broken should be taken into account by the court system.
Eventually, the plaintiffs and defendant settled for a total sum of only $664,000 on December 17th, 1915. This wasn’t a substantial amount of money given the fact that it was meant to be shared among all survivors and families of those killed in the disaster. The amount that was paid out came to less than 20 percent of what survivors and families of deceased individuals were asking for in the beginning.
The legal system then and now.
This case just goes to show that even 100 years ago, victims had to fight to get any compensation from the companies who were deemed responsible for such a tragedy. The legal battle played out in the U.S. Supreme Court; however, the main trial took place in Britain. The courts ruled for damage caps that favored White Star Line (the transport company) and the case was eventually settled out of court. Given the lack of evidence and sketchy eyewitness accounts at the time, I would guess that in today’s legal arena, claimants would have had a better chance of recovering what they were owed.