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Can Oceangate be Sued? Unraveling the Tragic Tale of the Titan

You may remember the submarine, meant to tour the wreck of the Titanic, that disappeared underwater on June 18th. The sub was called the Titan, sent by Oceangate with a crew of 5 aboard. It was later found that the submarine had imploded due to many faults in the vessel’s construction. The question we will be answering is, can the families of the deceased passengers sue Oceangate, and how likely is this trial to be successful?

The Signed Waiver

The passengers aboard the Titan had signed a waiver before the tour to secure Oceangate of liability if any harm came to them. Waivers must be specific as to the kinds of harm that may be incurred, and in this case, the waiver was incredibly specific. It had encompassed all the different kinds of dangers that come with deep sea submersion, as well as the fact that the submarine was not inspected by any authority to judge its safety.

Regarding the admissibility of such waivers, two central issues come up. Firstly, did it cover a necessary service, such as those of a medical nature? In this case, it did not, as deep sea exploration is no longer a necessary service. Secondly, was the waiver itself fair? In order to determine this, four factors are taken into account: No party must have leverage over another, the injured party must not be coerced into the act, the operator must not withhold information, and the passengers must understand exactly the risk they would be incurring. The former two factors check out. However, the latter two are iffy, and we will now discuss why.

A Case of Gross Negligence

The biggest problem with the Titan was the incompetence in ensuring the craft’s safety. The Titan was a modified version of a design made by University of Washington students and a rather robust design. However, that craft was meant to go no lower than 500 meters below the surface. On the other hand, the Titanic wreck is 4000 meters below the surface. This meant the difference between mere kilograms of pressure and many tons of it. 

Moreover, the sub was made of Carbon fibre, which is not ideal for submersibles. This was done to avoid building a Titanium and foam hull, which would have cost much more. The glass used to make the window for the sub was also of inferior quality and posed a significant point of failure. The sub was being controlled by a third-party Playstation controller from Logitech, a very cheap and very old controller meant obviously to play video games and not steer submarines. Many experts notified the CEO of Oceangate, Stockton Rush of the danger that he was putting the passengers under, and he reportedly ignored it all.

All this, alongside the fact that it was not inspected and given a safety rating by any authority to save on cost, as well as the employee that was fired for noting the safety concerns within the submarine, add up to a case of gross negligence, which is a form of negligent oversight of duties so severe that it nullifies any kind of waiver or agreement meant to absolve the defendant of liability. What’s more, this information was withheld from the passengers, and thus, they did not fully understand the risks involved, making the waiver inadmissible.

Jurisdictional Issues

If the lawsuit were to be carried out in the US, certain facts need to be considered. The US coast guard requires that any vessel with 6 or more passengers must first be inspected, and this is possibly why the Titan had only 5 passengers. This means that carrying passengers on an “experimental” sub would be illegal. Interestingly, these passengers were instead called “mission specialists” by the company and their $250,000 ticket was called a donation in order to avoid the implication that they were ticket-buying passengers. This was most probably done in an attempt to evade liability. These were clearly loopholes that Stockton Rush was attempting to use to bypass the rules set by the coast guard, and he was also urged by an industry expert to follow the rules.

The jurisdiction under which this trial would be carried out is questionable because Oceangate is established in Washington, the passengers were from England, France, Pakistan, and the USA, and the Titan was registered in the Bahamas. The ship that carried the sub to its operating point is registered in Canada. More importantly, the sub imploded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So, it is yet unclear where the lawsuits will take place and what the status of the passengers’ insurance will be, but it can be said with a reasonable amount of certainty that there will be lawsuits and they will not go in Oceangate’s favour.

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