Baylor Law Students Probe Titanic Sinking

  • News Photo 3012
    The RMS Titanic was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York when it struck an iceberg and went down in the north Atlantic in April 1912, resulting in the loss of more than 1,500 passengers. (Smithsonian Institution picture)
  • News Photo 3013
    Midway Middle School teacher Lara Robertson in the role of Madeleine Astor, widow of wealthy Titanic victim John Jacob Astor IV, gives evidence in the trial. The Astors were returning on the Titanic from their honeymoon in Europe. She survived the sinking, but her husband did not. Law student Brian Portugal, right, is serving as the trial judge.
  • News Photo 3011
    Law Professor Larry Bates, in the role of a metallurgist, explains the condition of some of the rivets used in the Titanic. He said the percentage of slag found in the rivets made them susceptible to failure.
  • News Photo 3010
    A picture of the Titanic is displayed on the screens before jury members as they are addressed by law student Brandon Barchus, representing one of the defendant companies.
  • News Photo 3008
    Student Jason Keith gives evidence in the role of Titanic wireless operator Harold McBride.
July 6, 2005

by Alan Hunt, (254) 710-6271

Baylor law students are examining the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 with the loss of more than 1,500 lives during their "Big Trial" court program, which got under way on Tuesday of this week.

Families of victims are suing the owners of the Titanic, its builders, and the radio equipment manufacturer in the fictional trial. The case is being heard by a jury of 12 people from the Baylor Learning in Retirement program at the Federal Courthouse on Franklin Avenue in downtown Waco.

The case, which is being held in Judge Walter Smith's courtroom on the third floor, will resume at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, and at 1 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. A verdict in the case is expected at the close of the Friday afternoon hearing, said Professor Gerald Powell, who is serving as the Practice Court professor this summer.

"Big Trial," part of Baylor Law School's rigorous Practice Court program, is the closest law students will come to the "real world" they ultimately will face in the legal profession. After months of preparing their cases for trial, it puts them in front of a judge and a jury, where they are expected to conduct themselves in a full trial process, defending or prosecuting, analyzing, and making convincing speeches to juries. "The Big Trial is the capstone of the Practice Court program," Powell said. "Every student must do a big trial."

Powell noted, "We have never done anything quite like this in PC (Practice Court) before, and it should be interesting. The trial will last four days rather than the usual one or two days." He said it was a "huge case," with more than 1,000 pages of witness testimony from the actual people involved in the Titanic disaster. He added, "There will be computer simulations as well as photos and video of the actual wreck of the Titanic."

The Royal Mail Ship Titanic left Great Britain on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, commanded by Capt. Edward J. Smith. On the night of April 14, in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, the Titanic struck an iceberg and started sinking. The ship later broke in two and went down with more than 1,500 of its 2,220 passengers and crew. Only 705 people survived.

Ten law students are participating in the trial as lawyers, and others are serving as witnesses, along with several Waco area residents who have volunteered their services. Baylor Law Professor Larry Bates took his turn on the witness stand Tuesday afternoon in the role of a metallurgist and fracture analysis specialist, giving evidence about the structural integrity of the Titanic. He said he had examined 37 rivets recovered from the ship and found they contained a high percentage of slag, which would make them brittle and susceptible to snapping. He said three million rivets were used in the construction of the ship.

He said the ship's builders assumed an "unreasonable risk" by using rivets that contained as much slag as they did, "whereas most of the industry was using rivets with significantly less slag." The collision with the iceberg below the water line caused the steel plates in the ship's hull to separate, allowing water to flood the ship, he maintained.

Baylor Law School's nationally renowned Practice Court program is one of the best in the country and the school's reputation for advocacy training has spread far and wide. The U.S.News & World Report rated Baylor Law School's trial advocacy program as the sixth best in the nation in its recently released 2006 edition of "America's Best Graduate Schools."

For more information about the Titanic trial, Powell can be reached at 254.710.3611. A member of the Baylor law faculty since 1986, Powell serves as the Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence.

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