Legal Perspective - What the "Titanic" Could Teach Us about Legal "Icebergs"
More than a century has passed since the RMS Titanic sank in 1912 on a cold stretch of the North Atlantic about 380 miles off the Newfoundland coast. If it hadn’t sideswiped an iceberg on the night of April 14th, it’s unlikely that people would be familiar with the ill-fated White State liner. The Titanic could have easily slipped into the same obscurity as other magnificent ships of the era if its maiden voyage hadn’t been marred by tragedy. But because of the events of that April night, Titanic came to symbolize a number of things. In popular culture, it became a metaphor for disaster. It also showed that even as man reached the pinnacle of early twentieth-century ship design and construction, the forces of nature still posed formidable hazards. As readers visit boatyards to remove shrink wrap with warmer weather around the corner, it’s not likely that anyone will be giving much thought to the threat posed by icebergs like the one that sank Titanic. Historians might think about icebergs in terms of how things might have ended differently on that fateful voyage if only a few simple measures had been taken by Titanic’s crew. But it’s easy to sit in the safety of an armchair and ponder the myriad “what ifs” of that incredible night. What if the ship’s lookouts had binoculars and were able to spot the iceberg sooner? What if more urgency had been given to those ice warnings? Perhaps Titanic could have plotted a safer course. What if the ship reduced speed to less than twenty-something knots? That would have certainly given crew members on the bridge more time to react. What if the wheel was simply put hard over without that additional order to reverse engines, where the reversing might have accomplished little more than depriving the rudder of adequate water flow to effectuate a good evasive turn? What if the ship’s designers had called for more lifeboats? That could have certainly changed the dismal statistics of the night, even though the number of boats carried met the requirements of the Board of Trade at the time. What if watertight bulkheads went a few decks higher? Would that have prevented the flooding of one hold after another as thousands of tons of seawater pulled the ship’s forward section lower and lower? It’s true that these things are all conjecture at this point. But one could say that many legal disasters unfold in a similar culmination of events. It’s often not just a simple mistake or error in judgment that turns small problems into large legal disasters. It’s often a series of things whose consequences seem to compound one another. And there are often small things that could be done to mitigate such problems, just as there could be small course changes that make for a safer passage when legal “icebergs” loom on the horizon. Naturally, one cannot compare the magnitude of a basic legal dispute with the terrible human cost of a passenger ship sinking in freezing waters. However, the point is that some legal disasters originate with the smallest of errors. And due to improper action or inaction, these small things sometimes cascade into larger legal headaches. For instance, a diver might be looking to be paid for some underwater inspection work. If he or she is ignored by the client, frustration could lead to anger. A lawsuit that could have been avoided is now in the hands of a collection attorney. A problem that would have easily been diffused by answering phone calls or emails asking for money now stands the risk of turning into a judgment. Similarly, other problems could balloon out of proportion if adequate steps aren’t taken to address them. A property damage claim to a vessel from a shore side structure or vice versa, where the boat causes the damage, could require examination by a surveyor. The claim could be meritless or it could be valid. However, missing the chance to properly address matters when they are manageable can lead to larger expenses if things snowball into a lawsuit. Just as there are opportunities to spot icebergs looming on the horizon to reduce their navigational threat, there are opportunities to take measures to address small disputes so that they don’t turn into major legal headaches. Sometimes it seems easier not to take action and hope that a problem will go away. We’re all guilty of such a mindset. It’s human nature. But dealing with those distant icebergs before they have the chance to cause damage can be a worthwhile approach, keeping small disputes from becoming larger legal headaches.