Titanic Trial Ends in Multi-Million Dollar Verdict - and a Tear

  • News Photo 3015
    Framed in the courtroom door window, members of the jury listen to Luke McMahan, who represented one of the Titanic survivors.
  • News Photo 3018
    Persis Mehta, who represented some of the Titanic survivors, addresses the jury.
  • News Photo 3017
    Shaun Skipper shows the jury one of the ice warnings radioed to the Titanic.
  • News Photo 3016
    Professor Jerry Powell, left, evaluates the students' courtroom performance.
July 11, 2005

by Alan Hunt, (254) 710-6271

Baylor law students appearing for victims of the Titanic sinking in 1912 won the equivalent of a $210 million verdict (in today's dollars) for their clients in a fictional civil trial held at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Waco. The jury in the trial deliberated for about one hour on Friday afternoon before returning with their verdict.

Jury members - all members of the Baylor Learning in Retirement program - had listened to hours of tragic testimony from witnesses who played the roles of survivors of the Titanic disaster. The evidence was so convincing that one juror actually admitted to the students at the end of the case that he had shed a tear during the hearing. "I tried not to get into it too deeply, but I found myself stifling a tear," he said.

Although he did not specify the testimony that produced the tear, it may have been when a 10-year-old English girl told on the witness stand about the moment she waved goodbye to her father as she and her mother climbed into a lifeboat. "He was standing on the deck and he told me to hold mummy's hand," she said. "That was the last we saw of him."

The huge ship, dubbed earlier as unsinkable, went down in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912 after striking an iceberg. More than 1,500 passengers were lost. The tragedy brought forth allegations that the ship steamed at full speed into a dangerous field of ice, despite warnings from other ships; that it did not carry enough lifeboats to save all its passengers and crew; and there was criticism about the Titanic's construction. An examination of some of the 3 million rivets used in the building of the ship were found to contain what one expert described as an excessive amount of slag, which would make them brittle and susceptible to snapping, he said.

In their mock trial hearing, students successfully sued on behalf of two widows who lost their husbands in the sinking and a radio operator who was injured when a lifeboat fell on him. The defendants in the trial included the operators of the Titanic; the ship's builders; and the radio equipment manufacturer, who also trained the ship's radio operators. The jury awarded damages against the Titanic's operators, but they cleared the ship builders and the radio equipment manufacturer.

Baylor Law Professor Jerry Powell, who is serving as the Practice Court professor this summer, said the Titanic sinking was thoroughly investigated by both Britain and the U.S.A., but he doubted whether the matter ever became the subject of a civil court case. He said he knew it had all the makings of an excellent case for the students to try in their "Big Trial" program, which wraps up the rigorous Practice Court stint undertaken by every law student. He described it as a "huge case," with more than 1,000 pages of witness testimony.

Powell expressed his pride in the student's courtroom performance - a view which was echoed by members of the jury, who stood and applauded the students.

Students who participated in the trial were Persis Mehta, Drew York, Luke McMahan, Mitch Keeler, John Harrison, Reiker Carsey, Brandon Bundren, Brandon Barchus, Dawn Taylor, and Shaun Skipper. Playing the roles of witnesses during the four-day trial were numerous Waco and Central Texas residents, including Law Professor Larry Bates.

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