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Titanic: A History of Legal Controversy on the Eve of a New Expedition

01 Jun 2020 8:56 PM | Anonymous

The sinking of the world famous Titanic was only the beginning of the ship's saga, since 1985, the Titanic has been the subject of on going legal disputes, shaping the way we look at the protection of underwater cultural heritage and the law of salvage.

Central Press/Getty Images

On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank after striking an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, claiming more than 1,500 lives. The shipwreck would remain missing for over 70 years until September 1, 1985, when Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered the ship and its debris nearly 12,000 feet below sea level. In an immediate response the international community began taking a closer look at the safety of our seas as well as taking measures to protect the cultural heritage and memory of sites with such lasting important historical significance. By 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted in response to the Titanic disaster and it addressed the minimum safety measures merchant ships must take such as standards of safety equipment, operation, and signatory flags. While SOLAS served to protect the future of humankind’s safety on the water, other measures have been taken to preserve what lies deep below. The now infamous wreck transformed the world’s approach to maritime preservation law and began a dialogue around the legal quandaries which continue to plague the Titanic’s memory. Fiercely debated questions remain: who should have access to the shipwreck? Should the wreck be under private or public control? Should artifacts be removed? To name a few. Here, we review just a small part of the legal history of the Titanic. 

RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act

In July 1986, shortly after its discovery, the U.S. Congress passed the RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act encouraging the designation of the Titanic as an international memorial site. This designation meant the site of the shipwreck would be considered, not only a site with international historical significance, but also a final resting place for those who lost their lives in the wreck.

Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel

In 1987, Titanic Ventures Limited Partnership (TVLP) and the U.S. Navy returned to the wreck. This joint operation salvaged approximately 1,800 artifacts.

In 1992, Marex, Inc. brought a case to the United States Federal Court in the Eastern District of Virginia for salvage rights to the Titanic. However, the court found that TVLP had first and exclusive rights to the site as salvor and the court entered a permanent injunction against Marex, Inc. from participating in any salvage operations of the Titanic. [1]

The case was reversed on appeal and shortly after the successor in interest to TVLP,  RMS Titanic Inc. (RMST), filed a new case in the Eastern District of Virginia claiming exclusive salvage rights and sole ownership of the artifacts salvaged from the wreck. In the end, the court awarded RMST salvor-in-possession status and exclusive rights over any items salvaged after assurances by RMST that they intended to keep the collection together. [2] In 2011, the RMST was also granted title to the artifacts under specified conditions that, together with NOAA, RMST would ensure that the collection will be preserved per international and U.S. standards for the foreseeable future. [3] 

UNESCO Takes Action

Prior to the 2011 ruling, in 2010 the Titanic came under protection of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act which designated the Titanic wreck site as an archaeological resource site. This designation allowed a non-recovery and non-contact research expedition to proceed in August of 2010. The expedition revealed an enormous amount of modern material presence on and near the site such as memorial plaques, garbage, discarded dive equipment, and even the ashes of Mel Fisher. Due to these findings, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) released a circular to alert the involved international governments to take action. Just several months later, and on the 100th year anniversary of the wreck, the Titanic officially came under the protection of the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Convention (2001) with an emphasis on in situ preservation for the site.

Since then, the site had remained largely untouched and, per legislation the 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act  (Public Law 115-31), the site lies under specific protections. Section 113 of the Act specifically provides for the protection of the RMS Titanic wreck site as a memorial not to be disturbed or physically altered in the pursuit of research, exploration, or salvage. Thus, the orders of the Eastern District of Virginia have largely been followed as RMST is unable to alter, touch, or take anything off of the ship without permission, though the company has been able to retrieve items from the field of debris surrounding the ship. 


Courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

An Uncertain Future with Mounting Controversy

Now, just a month since the 108th anniversary, attempts for an international treaty to allow international governmental protection over the Titanic are stalled and the fate of the site remains at the mercy of the court.

On May 19, 2020, RMST once again won a battle in the Eastern District of Virginia and the organization was granted approval for an expedition to recover the Marconi Radio from the wreckage. In this case, RMST plans to use robots to detach the radio from the ship, though RMST has yet to secure funding for the mission. It will be the first time explorers have been allowed to alter the site. While the ultimate goal may be, as the court declares, an attempt to preserve the legacy of history, RMST argues that the NOAA “wants to wrest control of shipwrecks away from courts and companies... [seeking] ‘to jettison the law of the sea, developed over centuries.’”Whereas, the NOAA maintains its position that “the Titanic site should be protected and preserved where it is, while the Marconi is “standard off-the-shelf” equipment of the time that has little value outside the ship.”According to explorers and oceanographers, the Titanic is rapidly deteriorating and, without any intervention, may collapse soon. In other words, time is running out for RMST to recover the radio, among other artifacts, a murky future only time will tell.

For more information go to https://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_titanic.html 

[1] Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 805 F. Supp. 375, 377 (E.D. Va. 1992), rev’d on procedural grounds, Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 2 F.3d 544 (4th Cir. 1993). 

[2] R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 920 F. Supp. 96 (E.D. Va. 1996).

[3] R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 2d 784 (E.D. Va. 2010)


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