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Legal Implications of Titanic Submarine Disaster

June 21, 2023
Legal News

Updated at 1:09 P.M. EST on June 23, 2023

A submersible watercraft carrying five individuals has imploded during an expedition to view the wreckage of the Titanic. The carbon-fiber submersible, named Titan, embarked on its journey with a 96-hour oxygen supply on Sunday, June 18, but lost contact with its support ship shortly after submerging. Reports emerged during the search for the missing vessel that debris of components belonging to the Titan were found scattered on the seabed.

It is believed that the submersible succumbed to the immense pressure it faced during its decent leading to an implosion and the loss of all 5 passengers inside the vessel. In the wake of this disaster, it is essential to explore the legal implications surrounding this unfortunate incident.

Liability and Responsibility in Submarine Incidents

Determining liability and responsibility in this case will involve a complex legal analysis. Several parties could potentially be held responsible, including the operators of the submersible, OceanGate Expeditions, and the individuals directly involved in the expedition. Proof of negligence is paramount to determine whether any of these parties are liable.

Operator Liability

In 2018, an employee at OceanGate Expeditions, David Lochridge (the Director of Marine Operations at the time), filed a claim against the company alleging he was unfairly fired. According to the claim, the company held a meeting in January 2018 about concerns over the quality control and safety of the submersible. Lochridge alleged major safety issues including the use of a porthole that was only certified to withstand pressure of 1,300 meters (for reference, the Titanic wreckage is located at a depth of 3,800 meters). At the end of the meeting, after saying that he would not authorize any manned tests of the Titan without a scan of the hull, Lochridge was fired and escorted from the building. OceanGate maintained in its lawsuit that the submersible Titan “is designed to reach depths as great as 4,000 meters.”

OceanGate Expeditions, as the owner of the submersible, has a duty of care to ensure the safety of their passengers and the proper functioning of their equipment. Any negligence on their part, such as inadequate maintenance or failure to provide sufficient training and emergency procedures, could potentially make them liable for the incident. Notice of possible dangers, as Lochridge discussed in his 2018 meeting, may also play a role. OceanGate could find themselves at fault if it knew that the Titan was not adequately designed to withstand pressure at depths of 3,800+ meters.

Adequacy of Safety Measures

The safety measures implemented by the support ship and OceanGate Expeditions will be evaluated. This includes examining the communication systems, emergency protocols, and contingency plans in place to respond to such situations. If any shortcomings are identified, it could result in legal consequences for the responsible parties.

In assessing the adequacy of safety measures, it is important to consider the specific features and design of the submersible. In this case, the submersible is reported to be bolted shut from the outside, making it inaccessible to the occupants and potentially complicating rescue efforts.

The fact that the submersible's exit hatch requires specialized tools to open raises additional concerns regarding the feasibility of immediate rescue operations. If the vessel is located but cannot be opened without the appropriate tools, it could significantly delay the extraction of the occupants.

In addition to statements by former employee David Lochridge, emerging reports from former expedition passengers have surfaced with one adventurer who went on this very expedition in August 2021 stating that he was ‘incredibly lucky’ to survive. The passenger, Arthur Loibl, called the voyage a ‘suicide mission’ and when speaking to German tabloid Bild, noted a number of red flags that he witnessed during his adventure including electrical problems, loose components on the vessel being reattached with zip ties, and more. A would-be passenger, Chris Brown, who was originally planning on going on this tour of the wreckage has also emerged stating that he withdrew due to safety concerns.

Jurisdictional Issues and DOSHA

Determining the applicable jurisdiction and the specific laws governing the incident will be an important aspect of any legal proceedings that may arise. The incident took place in the waters surrounding the wreckage of the Titanic which is in international waters about 370 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

Under the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOSHA”) a decedent’s “spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative” can bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible given that the incident occurred on the “high seas”. The “high seas” means “beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States.” This would only apply if the claim was filed in a U.S. court, not in Canada.

In the unfortunate event that the five passengers aboard the Titan submersible are not found alive, their family members may be able to bring a DOSHA claim to recover for the wrongful death of their loved one. The Titan lost contact with its support ship when it was nearly halfway down to the Titanic’s wreck. The wreck is roughly 900 miles east of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and, therefore, certainly more than three nautical miles from the shore. If the family members can establish that the passengers on the Titan were killed as a result of a wrongful act or negligence, they may be entitled to recover monetary damages under DOSHA.

The flag state of the support ship Polar Prince (Canada) and the submersible will play a significant role in determining jurisdiction and viability of a DOSHA claim. The laws and regulations of the flag state typically apply to vessels registered under its flag, including issues of liability and safety standards. OceanGate, the company responsible for the operation of the submersible, is a privately held company based in Everett, Washington.

International Maritime Law

As an incident involving multiple nationalities, international maritime law principles will likely come into play. International conventions, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention on Salvage (SALVAGE), provide guidelines and legal frameworks for maritime safety, salvage operations, and liability issues.

Contracts and Liability Waivers

Prior to embarking on the journey to the Titanic, passengers were required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential risks associated with deep-sea diving in the submersible. Companies that take guests on dangerous expeditions often require people to sign waivers before the expedition in an attempt to purge themselves from potential legal issues. The specifics of this waiver and other contractual agreements between the passengers and OceanGate may have bearing on any claims that emerge from this incident, depending on the wording of the documents.

The disappearance of the submersible during a Titanic expedition raises numerous legal implications. Determining liability, evaluating search and rescue efforts, considering jurisdictional issues, and reviewing any contractual agreements between the tour company and its passengers will be crucial steps in any legal proceedings that may follow. In the wake of this disaster, it is imperative for authorities, legal experts, and relevant stakeholders to work together to ensure a comprehensive investigation and address any legal ramifications arising from this unfortunate incident.

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