Like millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, we have been closely watching the news about the OceanGate submersible The Titan. This most tragic accident occurring at the most well-known underwater graveyard of the Titanic is ironic and simply horrific. Our deepest condolences go out to each of the families of the five persons who perished.
To say that this accident was preventable is an understatement. Much has and will be written about the rush to dive deep for thrill-seeking commercial tourism, relying on limited experience technology without proper testing, avoiding U.S. Coast Guard oversight and approval by apparently avoiding U.S. waters, the list goes on. Those in-the-know spoke up about significant safety concerns well in advance of the accident. Others did not listen, nor did they act. An accident waiting to happen – it was just a matter of time.
OceanGate, Inc. is a for-profit corporation organized in the State of Washington in 2011. Its’ address is listed as 1205 Craftsman Way, Suite 112, Everett, Washington. In its filings with the Washington Secretary of State, OceanGate identifies its business as: “Crewed Submersibles for Commercial Projects, Scientific Research, and Exploration.” There are four “Governors,” including Stockton Rush, the pilot of The Titan who died.
From a legal standpoint, the passengers likely signed a waiver and release of liability agreement, waiving all legal claims against OceanGate, Inc. and its employees, agents, etc. If Washington law applies to such releases, they are generally enforceable. However, and most importantly, there are exceptions to this rule. When the releasee’s conduct (the released party, here OceanGate) constitutes gross negligence, release agreements are not enforceable, and the passengers may proceed with their claims. Gross negligence in Washington is defined as substantially greater than ordinary negligence (where reasonable care is the standard). Gross negligence is the failure to exercise slight care. From what we have seen so far, we believe that the conduct of OceanGate will be grossly negligent and sufficient to set aside the releases under Washington law.
Depending on contract provisions, if there is jurisdiction in the U.S., the deaths will likely be governed by maritime law and the Death on the High Seas Act (46 U.S.C. §§ 30301-30308), originally enacted in 1920. It provides for an action in admiralty for the exclusive benefit of the “decedent’s spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative.” The act allows claims for the “pecuniary loss” suffered by each of these beneficiaries.
If Washington State has jurisdiction, claims against OceanGate could be filed in Snohomish County, Superior Court. Alternatively, if there is diversity jurisdiction, which there appears to be, then federal court jurisdiction may also be available, which would be in Federal District Court, Western District, Washington, most likely in Seattle.
Aviation Law Group attorneys have extensive experience handling maritime claims, including claims involving complex product liability cases, where we retain teams of leading experts to help with product failure analysis and determining accident causation. We currently represent families in wrongful death maritime claims in Washington and Hawaii, and recently handled maritime accidents in Alaska and British Columbia.
We have experience challenging liability waiver and release agreements. We have handled many cases throughout Washington and in Snohomish County Superior Court, including a jury trial resulting in an $8.9 million verdict. We have handled numerous maritime claims against The Boeing Company (and other manufacturers) arising from the January 31, 2000, crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261 into the Pacific Ocean near Anacapa Island, California.
Aviation Law Group attorneys handle cases in all courts in Washington, and we have had many cases before the Washington Court of Appeals and multiple cases before the Washington Supreme Court. In sum, we are highly qualified and are available to assist families with claims in the Titan accident.