Yes, it is possible to sue a submarine tour operator civilly if there are grounds for a legal claim. At the outset, as will be discussed, Titan was technically a submersible, not a true submarine. The specific jurisdiction where a submarine accident lawsuit can be filed against a submarine tour operator depends on various factors. One of them is the location of the incident, the jurisdiction where the operator is based or operates, and any contractual agreements or terms and conditions agreed upon by the parties involved.
Typically, a wrongful death lawsuit would be filed in the jurisdiction where the incident occurred or where the tour operator is based. Crew members might also have additional rights under the Jones Act, but cases like this are always a real legal battle. This could be the country or state where the tour took place or where the tour operator’s headquarters are located. Here, prior lawsuits against the sub-company were filed in Washington State Court. For brevity, our submersible accident lawyers will assume that is the venue and jurisdiction.
It’s important to consult with a maritime lawyer specializing in admiralty/maritime personal injury law to determine the appropriate jurisdiction and assess the viability of a civil lawsuit against a submarine tour operator based on the case’s specific circumstances. In the case at the bar, we know the Titan (tethered to a mother ship) typically spends about 10 to 11 hours during each trip to the Titanic wreck, while the Navy and other submarines can stay underwater for months. There is evidence the CEO was “woke” and hired less experienced crew since the more experienced retired US Navy sub captains were “white” and therefore not “inspirational.”
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The emotional trauma of losing a loved one due to carelessness or intentional lies is something that cannot be swept under the rug during a press conference. No regulatory body can bring your loved ones back to life. And past court documents indicate there were safety issues raising a lot of eyebrows. A wrongful death lawsuit in a submersible vessel case is a legal claim brought by the surviving family members or the estate of a person who died as a result of a submersible vessel accident or incident.
This type of lawsuit seeks to hold responsible parties financially accountable for their negligence, recklessness, or wrongful actions when someone is killed. Our wrongful death attorneys have experience in unique, unexplored areas of maritime law, and Michael Ehline helped draft portions of the Cruise Ship Safety Act on behalf of International Cruise Victims (ICV). In the case at bar, five people who died will likely have survivors. Many are probably in the hospital from the grief and intense emotional distress from this catastrophic loss they now face.
In a wrongful death lawsuit involving a submersible vessel, the plaintiff (the party bringing the claim) typically needs to establish the following elements:
- Negligence or wrongful conduct: The plaintiff must demonstrate that the party or parties responsible for the submersible vessel, such as the vessel operator, owner, manufacturer, or maintenance personnel, acted negligently or wrongfully. This can include failure to maintain the vessel properly, inadequate safety measures, equipment malfunction, operator error, or other forms of negligence or misconduct.
- Causation: The plaintiff must show a direct causal link between negligence or wrongful conduct and the death of the individual. It needs to be established that the actions or omissions of the responsible party directly resulted in the fatal incident.
- Damages: The plaintiff must demonstrate that they have suffered specific damages as a result of the death. These damages can include medical and funeral expenses, loss of financial support, loss of companionship, emotional distress, and other related losses.
Wrongful death lawsuits involving submersible vessels can be complex due to the technical nature of the equipment and the unique circumstances surrounding underwater operations. It may involve investigating the cause of the incident, assessing the vessel’s maintenance records, evaluating safety protocols, and determining liability among multiple parties.
As laws and regulations governing submersible vessels can vary by jurisdiction, consulting with an attorney experienced in maritime law or wrongful death cases related to submersible vessels is crucial. They can provide guidance on the specific legal requirements, potential liable parties, and the legal process involved in pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit in such cases.
Missing Submersible Found in the North Atlantic
- Five passengers aboard a submersible named Titan in the North Atlantic were the subject of an international search.
- OceanGate owned the imploded vessel and was specifically designed for exploring the wreckage site of the Titanic.
- Authorities estimated less than two days’ worth of oxygen remained in the submersible at that time and spent enormous resources trying to save the lives aboard.
- US Navy now says oxygen would not have mattered, as they used sound equipment to verify the sub-imploded that Sunday, making the search for life unnecessary. “That anomaly was “consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the TITAN submersible was operating when communications were lost,” according to a senior Navy official.”
Missing Submersible: Rescuers Race to Find Titan after Detecting Underwater Noises
When and where did the vessel go missing?
- The 21-foot vessel, named Titan, lost communication with its control center on that same Sunday morning, approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes into its scheduled dive.
- The U.S. Coast Guard reported the incident on Twitter and stated that the communication failure occurred around 435 miles (380 nautical miles) south of St. John’s in Newfoundland, close to the site of the famous Titanic shipwreck.
- Despite the US Navy acoustic ‘anomaly’ that Sunday, the search went on till it was later determined on June 22, 2023, that all hands were lost on June 18, 2023.
Why was the submersible diving?
- The missing vessel, owned by OceanGate, was conducting underwater voyages to explore the remains of the Titanic on the seafloor.
- OceanGate, based in Washington state, is known for its chronicling of the Titanic’s decay and previously shared a full-size digital scan of the wreck site.
- The company also offers deep-sea tourism experiences, taking adventurers on eight-day tours to explore the depths of the ocean for a fee of $250,000 per person.
- OceanGate has been sued before, and there is evidence that Titan was unfit for its particular deep-sea use.
Who was on board?
- The submersible, Titan, carried one pilot and four paid passengers referred to as “mission specialists,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
- Among the paid passengers was British businessman Hamish Harding, known for holding multiple Guinness World Records.
- Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, members of a prominent Pakistani family known for investing, were also on board.
- Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a French Titanic expert and director for RMS Titanic Inc., the U.S. company with salvage rights to the Titanic site, was present as well.
- OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush was the submersible pilot and used a video game controller to pilot the vessel.
Why did the vessel go missing?
- The exact reason for the submersible losing communication with its control crew remains unclear.
- Before the expedition, OceanGate stated they would rely on the satellite-based internet company Starlink for communication during the mission.
- Normally, the Titan uses a text-message-based system that relies on underwater acoustic positioning to communicate with the control ship.
- The submersible is equipped with basic emergency medical supplies and 96 hours of life support, according to OceanGate’s website.
Search Efforts and Latest Updates
- A unified command of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Canadian Coast Guard, and OceanGate coordinated search efforts which, as noted, located a debris field of the wreckage days ago.
- The search has ended with all hands lost, and hopes that 40 hours of oxygen left, had perhaps kept the crew alive, were lost.
- Canadian Coast Guard vessels and additional private vessels were also dispatched to the scene.
- Search teams are used aircraft, sonar devices, acoustic monitoring, and a remotely operated vehicle to scan the ocean surface, detect underwater sounds, and explore lower depths.
- Hauling the submersible to the surface would have posed a significant challenge due to its potential depth and distance offshore if it had been located.
- Despite the extensive search efforts involving expert personnel, the odds of survival for those on board are estimated to be around 1%.
- Previously, OceanGate has experienced difficulties locating the Titanic wreck during expeditions, often due to factors such as bad weather and mechanical issues.
Former OceanGate Employee Raises Safety Concerns
The tourist submersible that went missing while exploring the Titanic wreck was previously the target of safety complaints from an employee of OceanGate. This parent company owns the sub and runs tourist expeditions of the wreck. That employee complained specifically that the sub could not descend to such extreme depths before he was fired.
Legal Documents Reveal Safety Concerns and Wrongful Termination Allegations
According to legal documents obtained by The New Republic, in a 2018 case, OceanGate employee David Lochridge, a submersible pilot, voiced concerns about the safety of the sub. Lochridge, who was the director of marine operations at the time, was responsible for the safety of all crew and clients.
The concerns Lochridge voiced came to light as part of a breach of contract case related to his refusal to approve manned tests of the early models of the submersible due to safety concerns. Subsequently, Lochridge was fired, and OceanGate sued him for disclosing confidential information about the Titan submersible. In response, Lochridge filed a compulsory counterclaim alleging wrongful termination as a whistleblower regarding the quality and safety of the submersible.
Allegations of Termination to Silence Safety Concerns
In his counterclaim, Lochridge stated that instead of addressing his concerns about vessel safety, OceanGate terminated his employment to silence him and avoid addressing the safety and quality control issues.
According to the counterclaim:
Engineering Staff Concerns and Hostility Towards Safety Inspection
The counterclaim also detailed a meeting at OceanGate’s facility in Everett, Washington, where several individuals expressed concerns to the Engineering Director. OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush requested Lochridge to conduct a quality inspection of the Titan submersible.
During the inspection process, Lochridge encountered hostility and denial of access to necessary documentation from the Engineering Director. He was met with obstacles in obtaining information about the viewport design, pressure test results, and other crucial data.
Ignored Concerns and Lack of Non-Destructive Testing
Initially, Lochridge verbally expressed his safety and quality concerns about the Titan submersible to OceanGate’s executive management, but his concerns were ignored. Lochridge identified numerous issues that posed serious safety concerns and provided recommendations for corrective actions.
Of particular concern to Lochridge was the absence of non-destructive testing on the hull of the Titan. He was repeatedly informed that due to the hull’s thickness, it was not possible to conduct scans or tests to check for delaminations, porosity, voids, or sufficient adhesion of the glue used. OceanGate claimed there was no equipment available for such testing.
Depth Certification and Viewport Limitations
Following the issuance of Lochridge’s inspection report, a meeting took place on January 19, 2018, involving OceanGate officials, including the CEO, human resources director, engineering director, Lochridge, and the operations director.
During the meeting, Lochridge discovered that he had been denied access to viewport information because the forward viewport of the submersible was only certified for a pressure depth of 1,300 meters. However, OceanGate intended to take passengers to depths of 4,000 meters. The viewport manufacturer refused to certify the viewport for depths beyond 1,300 meters due to the experimental design supplied by OceanGate, which did not meet the Pressure Vessels for Human Occupancy (“PVHO”) standards. OceanGate refused to pay for the manufacturer to build a viewport that met the required depth.
- The Titan submersible debris field is estimated to be scattered across the ocean floor at a depth of nearly 4,000 meters.
Passenger Ignorance and Hazardous Materials
Lochridge’s complaints revealed that paying passengers were unaware of his safety concerns or the use of hazardous, flammable materials within the submersible. Despite expressing concerns about the Titan submersible, OceanGate failed to address them, ultimately leading to Lochridge’s termination.
Settlement of Lochridge vs. OceanGate Case
The case between Lochridge and OceanGate did not progress significantly and was eventually settled a few months later, bringing an end to the legal dispute once and for all. https://newrepublic.com/post/173802/missing-titanic-sub-faced-lawsuit-depths-safely-travel-oceangate
Legal Protection for OceanGate Amidst Missing Titan Sub Disaster
Legal experts suggest that OceanGate, the company operating the missing Titan submersible, is likely protected from future lawsuits arising from the incident. Passengers on the sub signed a waiver acknowledging the risk of death multiple times, making it challenging for them to sue OceanGate. However, operational negligence could potentially challenge the waiver’s validity as an exception to a voluntary assumption of the risk.
Limited Liability Due to Informed Assumption of Risk
According to Ehline Law Firm legal experts, OceanGate has a defense called the assumption of the risk. OceanGate will argue that the passengers willingly participated in an extremely hazardous activity and assumed significant risk. We have not seen the signed waiver and clear communication of the risk of death could mitigate the chances of successful legal action against the company. But like most things in life, there are exceptions to this rule in favor of a just outcome.
Exceptions may vary depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances of the case, as follows:
- Gross Negligence or Recklessness: If the defendant’s actions go beyond ordinary negligence and involve gross negligence or recklessness, the assumption of the risk defense may not apply. Gross negligence refers to a severe disregard for the safety or rights of others, while recklessness involves knowingly taking unreasonable risks. In such cases, a plaintiff may still be able to pursue a claim and recover damages.
- Failure to Warn: If the defendant failed to provide adequate warning or information about a known danger associated with the activity, the assumption of the risk defense may be weakened. Here, we don’t know if the viewport glass had been switched out, but if it was the reason the submersible exploded, plaintiffs could argue they were not fully aware of the risks involved and, therefore should not be barred from seeking compensation.
- Statutory Violations: If the defendant violated a specific law or regulation that was designed to protect individuals from harm in a particular activity or industry, the assumption of the risk defense may be challenged. The plaintiff can argue that the defendant’s violation of the law demonstrates negligence or a breach of duty, making them liable for the resulting harm.
- Implied Warranty of Safety: In certain situations, such as in a commercial transaction or when participating in a guided activity, there may be an implied warranty of safety. This means that the defendant implicitly assures the plaintiff that reasonable care will be taken to ensure their safety. If the defendant fails to fulfill this implied warranty, the assumption of the risk defense may not apply.
Consulting with a maritime law attorney specializing in sea-related incidents can provide survivors with more accurate and jurisdiction-specific information in their particular situations. But for our analysis, we will keep other presumptions in place.
Waiver and Informed Consent Legal Battle
Passengers aboard the Titan submersible allegedly paid $250,000 each and signed a waiver before embarking on the journey. The waiver explicitly stated the risk of death, with one former passenger stating that it was purportedly mentioned three times on the first page alone. The passengers’ informed consent and acknowledgment of those particular inherent dangers would make it challenging to hold OceanGate accountable. However, fraud vitiates consent, as would negligent misrepresentation or concealment of a fact, such as the subpar viewing glass.
Challenging the Waiver through Operational Negligence
Although OceanGate is protected by the waiver, any operational negligence or intentional fraud on its part could potentially render the waiver challengeable. Recent revelations about the company’s safety culture, including founder Stockton Rush’s remarks on safety regulations and the allegations made by a former employee, may pose legal risks if the search and rescue mission turns into a recovery operation.
Woke Comments as Admission to Cause of Implosion?
Relying on pop culture or woke companies like OceanGate and their hiring practices has caused a lot of backlash. Many on social media are asking if it would have been better to hire the “50-year-old white guys with military experience.” (Source.) Here, it appears the CEO was the pilot of the Titan submersible, so he was likely one of those 50-year-old plus white guys, making that argument a bit of an overreach.
Safety Concerns and the Former Employee Lawsuit
OceanGate has faced criticism for its safety practices, as highlighted by statements made by Stockton Rush and a lawsuit filed by a former employee, David Lochridge. Rush’s remarks and Lochridge’s claims of poor quality control and safety protocols are problematic.
Potential Challenge to the Waiver
If it can be proven that OceanGate’s negligence in design or operation caused the loss of the submersible, the waiver could be challenged. The evidence from past lawsuits and claims could undermine OceanGate’s liability waiver legal protection if they are found to be negligent in the design and operation of the submersible above or below the ocean’s surface. This could open up legal avenues for the passengers’ families to seek compensation and hold OceanGate accountable under the theory of wrongful death. https://www.yahoo.com/news/company-operates-missing-titanic-sub-003245168.html
A. Unseaworthiness Challenge?
Under general maritime law, the doctrine of seaworthiness imposes an absolute duty on a shipowner to provide a reasonably fit vessel for its intended purpose. This duty extends to all aspects of the vessel, including its equipment, crew, and operational systems. The shipowner must ensure that the vessel is in a safe and proper condition, adequately maintained, and equipped with necessary safety features. Reinhart v. U.S. (9th Cir.1972) 457 F.2d 151, 152.
That duty will extend “not only to the shipowner’s employees but to all who do seaman’s work.” Baker v. Raymond International, Inc. (5th Cir.1981) 656 F.2d 173, 181 cert. denied 456 U.S. 983 (1982) 102 S. Ct. 2256, 72 L. Ed. 2d 861. The remedy to cure unseaworthiness is for an injured seaman to apply in rem against the vessel and in personam against the vessel’s title owner, The Osceola (1903) 189 U.S. 158, 175, 23 S. Ct. 483, 487, 47 L. Ed. 760, or the actual owner pro hac vice under a demise charter. Baker, 656 F.2d at 182.
It is undisputed that the incident occurred aboard the Titan. Thus, liability for unseaworthiness depends upon the facts and outcomes of many things, including motions in limine.
B. Crew members – Jones Act Negligence
Here, the vessel commander’s surviving family could sue OceanGate since he is technically an injured seaman. So they could try and seek an additional remedy under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 688) because the duty to exercise reasonable care is independent of a vessel owner’s duty to provide a seaworthy ship. Garrett v. Moore McCormack Co. (1942) 317 U.S. 239, 240 n. 2, 63 S. Ct. 246, 248 n. 2, 87 L. Ed. 239 ; Reinhart, 457 F.2d at 152. A Jones Act claim, however, can only be brought against the seaman’s employer, in this case, OceanGate. The survivors must establish the existence of an employer-employee relationship at the time of the injury. Cosmopolitan Shipping Co. v. McAllister, 337 U.S. 783, 791, 69 S. Ct. 1317, 1321-22, 93 L. Ed. 1692, rhg. denied 338 U.S. 839, 70 S. Ct. 32, 94 L. Ed. 513 (1949); Baker, 656 F.2d at 177.
A court would likely consider the Captain “a seaman” in the service of the defendant’s chartered vessel. Hence, it remained under the management and control of the vessel’s owners. The Norland, 101 F.2d 967, 971 (9th Cir.1939). A time charterer merely takes over the vessel’s carrying capacity and reserves authority only as to certain business matters, such as ports touched and cargo loaded. Saridis v. S.S. Paramarina, 216 F. Supp. 794, 797 (E.D.Va. 1962).
In the context of a demise or bareboat charter, the liability for injuries to employees rests upon the charterer rather than the owner of the vessel. During a demise or bareboat charter, the charterer assumes possession, custody, and control of the vessel as if they were the owner pro hac vice, meaning for the time being. This includes taking on the responsibilities and liabilities associated with the operation of the vessel. As a result, the charterer is considered the employer of the master and crew during the charter period.
Under this arrangement, if injuries occur to employees during the charter period, the liability for those injuries would generally fall upon the charterer rather than the vessel’s owner. The charterer is responsible for providing a safe working environment, ensuring the seaworthiness of the vessel, and maintaining compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Norris, The Law of Seamen, § 27:24, p. 252 (4th ed. 1985).
OceanGate Apparently Classifies All Aboard As “Crew”
Here, it is noted that news reports and court documents indicate that OceanGate classifies all hands in the Titan as “Crew.” If this is legally so, it appears the Jones Act and DOHSA would also apply to the passengers and their families. How a court will rule is anyone’s guess. Each legal representative will be faced with language barriers, cultural issues, and geographic inconvenience. Zoom videos will probably be helpful if allowed by a court or special referee. The trial will likely be a media sensation if it gets that far.
Can a Crew’s Family Sue for Death of a Seaman?
Under maritime law, a family can file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a deceased seaman family member. Maritime law recognizes the rights of family members to seek compensation for the death of their loved one due to negligence or unseaworthiness.
The specific legal framework governing wrongful death claims in maritime cases is the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) or the Jones Act, depending on the circumstances. These laws provide remedies for surviving family members, such as spouses (husband, wife, children, grandparents) or dependent relatives, who have suffered the loss of financial support, companionship, and other damages resulting from the death of a seaman.
Yes, There Are Several Theories To Suing Under
We just saw that despite a waiver, there could be issues like a fraud that can vitiate any consent. If the court agrees, the family generally must demonstrate that the death was caused by the negligence, recklessness, or unseaworthiness of the vessel or its crew. Survivors must establish that the responsible party failed to meet the required duty of care owed to the seaman and that this failure directly led to the fatal implosion accident. Here the survivors would go after the world’s only privately owned, manned submersibles. It would likely present novel issues of law as well. Potential defendants may include interest in the sister submersible called the Cyclops (another underwater boat).
Diversity issues for courts to decide may occur, and this case could be brought in some other jurisdiction than enumerated or disclosed in a passage contract. I want to thank Reporter David Pogue for his initial expert journalism over Titan’s so-called “Jerry-Rigged” Design. I am curious to see if any plaintiffs can meet their burden of showing there exists a genuine issue of material fact regarding Titan’s’ liability under the Jones Act as “crew.” If you have any more information about the story or want to learn more, contact personal injury attorney Michael Ehline by using our convenient online contact us form.
- Reuters. (2023, June 22). Titanic sub-victims’ families could still sue despite liability waivers. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/titanic-sub-victims-families-could-still-sue-despite-liability-waivers-2023-06-22/
Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of the largest motorcycle accident settlements in U.S. History. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients. We pride ourselves in being available to answer your most pressing and difficult questions 24/7. We are proud sponsors of the Paul Ehline Memorial Motorcycle Ride, and a a Service Disabled Veteran Operated Business. (SDVOB.) We are ready to fight.
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