(Reuters) — Liability waivers signed by passengers on a submersible lost at sea during a dive to the Titanic wreck may not protect the ship’s owners from potential lawsuits from victims’ families, legal experts said.
The Titan submersible went missing Sunday about two hours after the dive and was found in pieces on the ocean floor after what the U.S. Coast Guard said Thursday was a “catastrophic implosion” of its pressure chamber.
The passengers, who paid as much as $250,000 each to travel 12,500 feet below the surface, are believed to have signed liability waivers. A CBS reporter who made the trip with OceanGate Expeditions in July 2022 reported that the waiver he signed mentioned the possibility of death three times on the first page alone.
Reuters could not independently confirm the terms of OceanGate̵7;s exemption.
OceanGate did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Waivers are not always ironclad, and it is not uncommon for judges to reject them if there is evidence of gross negligence or dangers that were not fully disclosed.
“If there were aspects of the design or construction of this vessel that were kept from the passengers or if it was deliberately operated despite information that it was not suitable for this dive, that would absolutely defy the validity of the exemption,” said personal injury lawyer and maritime law expert Matthew D. Shaffer, which is based in Texas.
OceanGate could argue that it was not grossly negligent and that the exceptions apply because they fully described the dangers of touching the deepest parts of the ocean in a submersible the size of a minivan.
The degree of possible negligence and how it might affect the application of the exemptions will depend on the causes of the disaster, which are still under investigation.
“There are so many different examples of what families may still be entitled to despite the exemptions, but until we know the cause, we can’t determine whether the exemptions apply,” said California personal injury attorney Joseph Low.
The families could not be reached Thursday. It is possible that none of them will suit.
OceanGate is a small company based in Everett, Wash., and it’s unclear whether it has the assets to pay significant damages, should any be awarded, but families could collect from the company’s insurance if it has one.
Families could also seek damages from outside parties who designed, helped build, or manufactured components for the Titan if they were found negligent and caused the implosion.
OceanGate could try to protect itself from damages by filing a so-called limitation of liability action under maritime law, which allows owners of vessels involved in an accident to ask a federal court to limit any damages to the current value of the vessel. Since Titan was destroyed it would be zero.
But OceanGate would have to prove it had no knowledge of potential defects with the submersible and would bear the burden of proof, which legal experts said is a difficult burden to meet.
If OceanGate were to fail in such a case, families would be free to file negligence or wrongful death claims.
Another maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act, allows people who were financially dependent on someone who died in a maritime accident to seek only the portion of that person’s future earnings that they would otherwise have received. Plaintiffs cannot recover damages for pain and suffering in these cases.
What OceanGate knew about the vessel’s safety and what the passengers were told about it would be central questions during discovery, a process in which parties share information about a case.