Women-children policy called sex discriminationImagine the lawsuits if the Titanic sank today - the claims of faulty construction and unsafe speed would pile up. And sex discrimination: "Women and children first" might no longer cut it in court.
"If you design or build a boat, it must be able to stay afloat," Johnnie Cochran, formerly O.J. Simpson's criminal defense lawyer, argued Monday as members of the American Bar Association held a fictional trial over the massive ship's 1912 sinking.Cochran represented a woman portraying a fictional survivor of the tragedy, who was suing shipbuilder Harland & Wolff.
But Stephen G. Morrison of Columbia, S.C., representing the ship-builder, insisted the vessel was state-of-the-art at a time when the Ford Model T was only 4 years old.
He said the real fault lay with the ship's owner and operator, White Star Line, which he accused of taking the Titanic too fast through an iceberg field out of "ego and arrogance and carelessness."
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.
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 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 documents 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 those courtroom roles 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.
On Monday, Cochran asked the audience to award the woman anywhere from $120 million to $225 million in damages.
The ship should have had fully watertight compartments to keep water from spreading inside and bolted-down binoculars in the lookout nest so they couldn't be lost, Cochran said. And the builder shouldn't have let people think the Titanic was unsinkable, he added.
"You would not want a ship . . . to wait until it was literally on top of an iceberg to take evasive action, would you?" asked lawyer Emmanuel E. Edem of Oklahoma City, who also represented the woman.
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 & Wolff 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.
The verdict? The shipbuilder was liable and must pay $1.5 million.