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Volume 68, Issue 69, Wednesday, December 4, 2002


Law lecture explores famous shipwreck

By Charity Halphen
The Daily Cougar

When the Titanic sank in 1912, it left behind complex legal problems and the infamous shipwreck continues to spawn legal battles to this day.

The UH Law Center sponsored a lecture Tuesday night to explore those past and present dilemmas. It was held at the Museum of Natural Science in conjunction with the art exhibit there of artifacts from the Titanic.

"The sinking of the Titanic is a topic that still holds the fascination of people around the world today," Law Center Dean Nancy Rappaport said.

Pin Lim/The Daily Cougar

In a recreation of the 1912 U.S. Senate inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, attorney John Ellison, playing the inquisitor, questions David Temple, playing Titanic owner J. Bruce Ismay. The UH Law Center held a lecture about past and present legal issues surrounding the famous shipwreck Tuesday at the Museum of Natural Science.

"Few seminal events have shaped our lives. We remember such events as Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but the sinking of the Titanic supercedes all else," said attorney John N. Ellison of Anderson, Kill and Olick. "Maybe this is due to the allure of the people on board the Titanic that tragic night, or possibly the mystery of the sea."

Ellison spoke on past legal issues. In a revealing reenactment of the U.S. Senate inquiry held during April and May of 1912, Ellison presented the testimonies of two key survivors, members of the ship's crew. Actors portraying Charles Lighttoller, the second officer in command aboard the Titanic, and J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic, took the stand.

Through Lighttoller's statement, audience members heard that there weren't enough water-tight compartments within the ship, and with only 16 lifeboats being carried, half the passengers on board the Titanic wouldn't be assured seats in the event the ship needed to be abandoned. To make that statistic even more damaging, the lifeboats were only filled to 60 percent of their capacity. These were the conclusions reached by the Senate Inquiry Committee almost a century ago.

Ellison also reported on the result of claims arising from the sinking of the Titanic. Of the 1,595 passengers who died when Titanic sank, the largest settlement in the United States paid to any one person was $5,000. This small claim wasn't attributed to the loss of life, but rather to loss of property.

"Amazingly, the average recovery for each human life lost that night was $442," Ellison said. "Maritime law, even today, does not offer good compensation for those who accrue grievances on board a sea vessel. The rules often allow those responsible to evade blame."

Attorney Philip N. Davey of Davey and Brogan, P.C., delved into the present legal issues surrounding the recent excavation and exploration of the Titanic. He included the recent decision by the R.M.S. Titanic, the company that was given exclusive rights by a U.S. federal court in 1994 to recover artifacts from the wreck, to give up that hold.

In 1987, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., began salvaging the famous shipwreck. Six salvage expeditions, the last of which took place in 2000, have been conducted at a total cost of $11 million.

Six thousand artifacts have been recovered, and many are being showed in public exhibits around the United States, such as the current exhibition at the Museum of Natural Science, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit.

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