Legal and Ethical Implications of the Titan Submersible Incident (OceanGate)

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Background to the Disappearance of Underwater Vehicle (UV) Titan

This legal note addresses the incident involving the underwater vehicle (UV) Titan, owned and operated by OceanGate, an American company headquartered in Washington State, with a subsidiary company, OceanGate Expeditions, registered in the Bahamas. On 18th June 2023, UV Titan disappeared in the vicinity of the Titanic shipwreck, situated at a depth of 3,800 meters, approximately 304 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in international waters. The UV Titan had been launched from the Canadian vessel Polar Prince.On 22nd June 2023, authorities discovered scattered Titan parts near the Titanic site. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance and the recovery of these parts have raised significant concerns and may give rise to potential legal implications.

Hazards of Deep-Sea Exploration

Exploration of the deep sea presents inherent hazards, characterized by factors such as extreme pressure, thermocline, and communication challenges. The pressure increases by one atmosphere for every 10 meters of depth in the ocean, making deep-sea exploration exceptionally dangerous.

Possible Causes of Titan’s Disappearance

The precise reasons for the UV Titan’s collapse remain subject to ongoing investigation and debate. Several potential issues have been identified that could have contributed to the incident, including the use of carbon fibre in certain parts of the Titan’s design. Carbon fibre is an experimental material, and its resistance to deep-sea pressure may require further understanding and evaluation. Additionally, concerns have been raised about the UV Titan operating without proper certification or authority to ensure compliance with safety standards.

Liability Considerations

In light of these events and uncertainties, there may be potential liability considerations that OceanGate and other involved parties need to address. The circumstances of the UV Titan’s disappearance and the recovery of its parts raise questions about compliance with relevant regulations, safety protocols, and the overall responsibility for the incident.

Underwater vehicles (UVs) under the  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The UNCLOS categorizes UVs as ships or vessels, equipment, or devices, but it lacks a clear definition for these terms, leading to a legal loophole. Due to this ambiguity, stakeholders have been deploying UVs without regulatory constraints. While UNCLOS Part V allows coastal states to impose restrictions on UVs within their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) for activities like marine scientific research and environmental protection, recreational activities such as submarine tourism remain unrestricted in both the EEZ and the high seas. The jurisdiction on the high seas is determined by the nationality of the ship, but there is no UNCLOS definition for ‘ship,’ leaving the decision to individual states. Consequently, experimental UVs can engage in various activities on the high seas, as long as they comply with UNCLOS provisions and national laws of the operating state.

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Possible reasons why underwater vehicles (UVs) are poorly regulated in international law

UVs, primarily developed by a few countries such as China, France, Japan, the UK, and the US, have historically been limited to marine scientific research (MSR) and military applications, resulting in a lack of international regulations. However, the commercial use of UVs is increasing, notably in submarine infrastructure repair and tourism. Efforts to regulate UVs have been made under the Draft Convention on the Legal Status of Ocean Data Acquisition Systems, Aids, and Devices (ODAS), where UVs are recognized as ODAS during vertical navigation and as ships during horizontal navigation. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) focuses on regulating maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS), leaving UVs outside their scope. Consequently, regulations for UVs are largely determined by regional or domestic laws. Examples include regulations in the European Union, the UK, and China. For the UV Titan, legal considerations revolve around the laws of the Bahamas, Canada, and the US, where the latter does not require inspections for submersibles with six or fewer passengers. The Bahamas and Canada have regulations for manned submersibles, but their applicability to the UV Titan hinges on specific circumstances and jurisdictions. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is currently investigating the factors contributing to the Titan’s implosion.

Liability of OceanGate:

Despite passengers signing waivers, OceanGate could still be held liable if evidence suggests that the company was negligent in operating the submersible. Negligence may include inadequate maintenance, insufficient crew training, or a failure to implement adequate safety precautions. The determination of liability will heavily depend on the evidence presented and the extent of OceanGate’s responsibility in ensuring passenger safety.

Update:The liability waivers signed by passengers on the lost submersible during the Titanic wreck dive may not fully protect the vessel’s owner, OceanGate, from potential lawsuits by the victims’ families. While waivers can be enforceable, they may be invalidated if evidence of gross negligence or undisclosed hazards comes to light. OceanGate could assert that they disclosed the dangers associated with the deep-sea dive in their waivers, but the validity of these waivers could be challenged if there were hidden design or operational issues. The cause of the disaster is still under investigation, and until it is determined, the applicability of the waivers remains uncertain. OceanGate could seek protection under maritime law through a limitation of liability action, but they must prove no knowledge of defects in the submersible, a challenging burden. Families might also pursue damages from other parties involved in the submersible’s design and construction. The Death on the High Seas Act may limit compensation to financial dependency for families of the deceased. Discovery may reveal information on the vessel’s safety and what passengers were informed about it. Previous safety concerns raised by an ex-employee and industry leaders may be cited by plaintiffs during potential lawsuits. The outcome of these legal proceedings remains uncertain.The enforceability of waivers signed by passengers is a critical aspect to consider. These waivers may be deemed unenforceable if they are found to be unconscionable or fail to adequately disclose the risks associated with the submersible expedition. Courts will assess the validity of the waivers based on their content, clarity, and the parties’ understanding of the risks involved.

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Jurisdictional Considerations:

Determining the jurisdiction for potential lawsuits arising from the incident involves various factors. Key considerations include the location of the submersible when it went missing, the nationality of the passengers involved, and the location of OceanGate’s headquarters. Jurisdictional determinations will significantly impact the legal proceedings and the rights of the parties involved.

Potential Criminal Charges:

If OceanGate’s conduct is deemed criminally negligent, the company or its employees could face serious criminal charges such as manslaughter or reckless endangerment. The investigation will focus on establishing whether criminal acts or omissions contributed to the incident, holding those responsible accountable under the law.

Jurisdiction

The court jurisdiction for the Titan submersible (OceanGate) incident will depend on a number of factors, including the location of the submersible when it went missing, the nationality of the passengers, and the location of OceanGate’s headquarters.

  • Location of the submersible: If the submersible was located in international waters when it went missing, then the case could be heard in any court that has jurisdiction over maritime accidents. This could include the courts of the United States, the United Kingdom, or France, since the passengers in the submersible were from these countries.
  • Nationality of the passengers: If the passengers were from different countries, then the case could be heard in the courts of any of those countries. This could lead to multiple lawsuits being filed in different jurisdictions.
  • Location of OceanGate’s headquarters: OceanGate is headquartered in Washington state, so the case could also be heard in the courts of Washington state. However, the company also has operations in other countries, so the case could be heard in the courts of those countries as well.
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Ultimately, the court jurisdiction for the Titan submersible OceanGate incident will be determined by the parties involved in the case. They will need to decide which court is the most appropriate forum for hearing the case.

The laws of the relevant jurisdictions will need to be considered when determining which court is the most appropriate forum for hearing the case. For example, if the laws of one jurisdiction are more favorable to the plaintiffs than the laws of another jurisdiction, then the plaintiffs may want to file the case in the more favorable jurisdiction.Secondly, the availability of evidence may also influence the court jurisdiction. For example, if the evidence is located in one jurisdiction, then it may be more convenient to file the case in that jurisdiction.Thirdly, the cost of litigation may also be a factor in determining the court jurisdiction. For example, if the cost of litigation is lower in one jurisdiction than another jurisdiction, then the plaintiffs may want to file the case in the cheaper jurisdiction.

Ethical and Moral Questions:

Beyond the legal aspects, the incident has raised ethical and moral concerns. Questions have emerged regarding the ethicality of subjecting paying customers to high levels of risk and whether OceanGate should have operated the submersible considering the known safety concerns. These questions reflect broader societal considerations regarding the balance between adventure tourism and passenger safety.

Conclusion:

While the final outcome of this case remains uncertain, the legal and ethical implications it raises are undeniably significant. There is a need for OceanGate, Polar Prince, and other relevant stakeholders, to engage in a thorough legal analysis and assessment of potential liabilities arising from the incident. Consulting legal experts familiar with international maritime law and deep-sea exploration regulations is advisable to ensure that all actions moving forward are legally compliant and appropriately safeguarded.

By The Josh and Mak Team

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