This Day in International Law: April 14

By: Luna Martinez Gomez

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg. Most of us are familiar with the tragic story of the Titanic shipwreck, dramatized by Leo and Kate into a story of unrealized love and sunken diamonds. However, few people are aware of the challenges that international lawyers faced 104 years ago over litigation concerning the ship’s sinking. Who could recover for the loss of personal property, cargo, human life, and the ship itself? These questions were riddled with difficulties. The vessel was owned by a British company but sank in international waters on its way to New York. Further, those aboard her maiden journey hailed from all over the world. Could the U.S. apply its liability laws? Could the case be tried before United States courts?

The iceberg that triggered Titanic’s descent into the annals of history contributed to complicating the case. A robust body of jurisprudence existed to deal with conflicting international laws in response to a collision at high seas between two ships. Yet, it was unclear whether the law of the [ship’s] flag should also apply to the loss of a vessel by striking a foreign object. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law of the flag determined whether a cause of action existed against a shipowner, but the law of the country in which the action was brought (lex fori) determined if and to what extent the shipowner may limit liability. This resulted in a bewildering puzzle of hypotheticals. What if an action for wrongful death was limited to one amount by the law of the forum, and to a different amount by the lex loci? What if the vessel belonged to a state that allowed a right of action for a cause not recognized by U.S. maritime laws?

The above is just one example of the conflicts of law that countries face when responding to maritime misfortunes. These issues are further highlighted by the universal interest in protecting human life in the high seas, ensuring the integrity of mercantile relations, and allowing countries to assert their autonomy and sovereignty over their property. Titanic’s sinking a century ago is but one cautionary tale of the way in which fragmented legislation often leads to frictions in the field of international law.