Originally created 08/04/98

Imagine the lawsuits if the Titanic sunk today



TORONTO -- If the Titanic went down today, what a gargantuan lawsuit there would be. Women and children first, indeed! That alone could trigger wrongful death suits based on a sex-discrimination claim.

Lawyers at the American Bar Association's annual meeting showed off their legal skills Monday with a day-long trial of a fictional lawsuit over the great ship's 1912 sinking after it struck an iceberg.

"You would not want a ship ... to wait until it was literally on top of an iceberg to take evasive action, would you?" real-life lawyer Emmanuel E. Edem of Oklahoma City asked a woman portraying a survivor of the tragedy.

The fictional character, named Rhoda Abbott, claimed the ship was unsafely built and operated -- brittle rivets, not easily maneuverable, not enough lifeboats and a lookout crew without even a pair of binoculars.

The fictional Mrs. Abbott sued the ship's manufacturer, Harland & Wolfe.

And then there was the women-and-children-first policy. The woman and her teenage sons survived but her husband didn't, and thus she said she planned to file a whole new lawsuit against the ship's owner, White Star Line, based on sex discrimination.

The ABA event was conducted as if modern product-liability laws, legal skills and courtroom technology had been transported back to the time of the Titanic.

Photos of the ship and blowups of White Star Line document were projected onto large screens to help the audience -- acting as the jury -- understand the lawyers' arguments and questioning of witnesses.

Even some of the lawyers themselves -- women and blacks -- likely would not have been seen in a courtroom back then.

"It's an opportunity to see how the best lawyers present the most complicated cases," said Robert H. Alexander of Oklahoma City, the lawyer who chaired the program. "It gives a framework for appreciating how much the law has changed in the years since Titanic."

The true-life lawsuits over the Titanic's sinking were settled without coming to trial. The largest American settlement was $5,000 to a well-to-do family, while the largest British settlement was $50,000 to a large company, Alexander said.

These days, the claims would be in the millions.

Edem closely questioned the fictional survivor about whether she would have set foot on the ship if she knew of the structural defects she now claimed were partly responsible for her husband's death.

But attorney Chilton Davis Varner of Atlanta, representing the ship's manufacturer, asked a series of questions designed to show the real problem was White Star Line's operation of the ship and actions after it struck the iceberg.

The ship's owners overruled the manufacturer's recommendation to install enough lifeboats for the 2,000-plus passengers, she said, displaying documents to back her statements up.

And the ship did take almost three hours to sink, Varner said.

"Harland & Wolfe provided almost three hours of time during which, had there been sufficient lifeboats and sufficient training, you and your family might have escaped," she said.