Skip to Main Content
Law Library

Updates, News & Information: Law Library Blog

Law Library updates, news and events

Titanic’s Wreck and the Law

by Erin Gow on 2023-04-21T10:00:00-04:00 | 0 Comments
By Melodie Hawkins

Rust. Rot. Barnacles and anemones. Remnants and decay. These are all that’s left of what was once hailed as the “unsinkable RMS Titanic.” Its tale is one that’s been told, re-told, and re-told again. Sinking from scraping an iceberg on April 14th, 1912, its loss and the catastrophic loss of life would have ripple effects for decades to come. Amongst these would be legal struggles, ongoing even 111 years later.

When the White Star Lines’ pride and joy the Titanic (with sister ships the Britannic and the Olympic, all considered “unsinkable”) launched for its maiden voyage on April 10th, 1912, it was the largest liner ever built. Every part of it was meant to exude luxury, even for its 3rd class passengers. They, unlike their 1st and 2nd class brethren, weren’t on the ship just for a vacation; most were setting sail for a new beginning in the US, an escape from the rampant poverty that many in Britain and Ireland suffered at the turn of the century. Fate would show its cruelty, then, that of the 1,503 passengers who’d lose their lives, the majority were among 3rd class passengers and crew. And the majority of those would find their final resting place with the ship, down at the bottom of the cold, desolate ocean.

1985. On the last day of 60 in a joint U.S./French expedition, oceanographer Robert Ballard finally found what he had been searching for. The first images of the Titanic in its underwater grave soon graced TVs aboard their tiny vessel. Although later U.S. Navy backed dives would yield more detailed images, it was then - after 70 years- that the wreckage was rediscovered. While the search ended, however, the legal minefield was just beginning.

Immediately after the disaster, numerous legal cases, laws, etc. were brought forth in both the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. Many involved insurance claims, liability, reports, maritime safety, and similar cases; however, going over all of them would add another ten pages, instead, we’re going to focus on post rediscovery law in the U.S.

The first law came about on October 21, 1986 with the “RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986.” It asserts that the wreckage site should be regarded as a memorial to those who died at her sinking due to its status of “major international cultural and historic significance”  and this merits international protection, and declares its purpose to encourage and negotiate the protection of the wreck while creating guidelines for research, exploration and-when appropriate-salvaging.

That last part would lead to even more legal and ethical issues in the coming years. RMS Titanic. Inc. (RMST), succeeding the previous Titanic Ventures Limited Partnership, was granted sole salvor-in-possession rights to the wreck via court order on June 7, 1994 and reaffirmed such in subsequent court cases such as R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel. RMST promised to not sell any of the artifacts it recovered and conserved, and pieces were unable to be separated. It was also ruled in 2004 that RMST held no titles to any of the artifacts. All of this, however, would become useless as RMST would file for bankruptcy in 2016, with proceeding legal cases involving it solely involving getting money and title from its artifices from France and others.

In 2001, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued Guidelines for Research, Exploration, and Salvage of the RMS Titanic. These sought to keep as many hands off and as few disturbances as possible to the wreck, as well as guide any salvaging or conservation efforts. It also notes that any of said activities should “avoid disturbance of human remains.” Particularly, the hull sections of the ship should be avoided specifically to not disturb any “remains” or artifacts therein. This is an interesting note, and one that I’ll come back to.

The most recent legislative action came in 2017 in the Department of Commerce Appropriations Act Sec. 113, likely on the heels of the 2016 bankruptcy of RMST. It states that for the fiscal year of 2017 and every year thereafter, “no person shall conduct any research, exploration, salvage, or any other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site…unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce per the provisions of the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic.” This Agreement is one between the U.S. and U.K. that, among other things, has both countries recognize the wreck as a memorial to the dead and as “an underwater historical wreck of exceptional international importance having a unique symbolic value” as well as set expectations regarding exploration and salvaging of the wreck. Again, within this is a concerted effort to not disturb any human remains.

Drawing of a woman with a girl asleep in her lapLooking at both of these raises a question, one that spurred this blog post on in the first place: are there any human remains left in and around the wreck of the Titanic? According to Professor Robert Ballard during a talk at the University of Rhode Island in 2012, due to underwater scavengers and other deep-sea frigid conditions that lead to it being undersaturated in calcium-carbonate, most of the bodies are completely gone. The only remnants left are their leather shoes, which contain chemicals that sea life prefer to avoid. In his talk, he notes that most people died quickly from hypothermia, and if they didn’t have lifejackets sank with the ship. So everywhere around the wreck, exactly where the bodies fell, are just shoes. One such image he shows is one of shoes belonging to a mother and her daughter who died in the second-class cabins. He doesn’t stay for long on this, but images like this do bring up questions about how the wreck should be treated with regards to the lives lost. He further talks about the damage he’s seen in subsequent dives that’s occurred to the wreck from people salvaging and doing trips (usually from France and Russia) that land on the ship and the need for further preservation and conservation efforts. As much legislation and work that’s already been done, it still seems not enough.

The wreck of the RMS Titanic is a tragedy that has stuck in our proverbial cultural psyche. Thanks to the profile of its more famous victims, the retellings of its story time and time again, and the sheer tragedy of those who died wanting to start a new life, the ship - and by extension its wreck - will likely continue to prove an alluring tale for many decades to come. However, with the tides of climate change and continued damage from trips down to it, how much longer it will be there and whether any further legal action can and will be taken to protect it is, sadly, unknown.


Sources/Additional Resources:

  • Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of the RMS Titanic, 66 Fed. Reg. 18905 (April 12, 2001).
  • Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS, June 18, 2004, 2004 AMC 1850.
  • RMS Titanic Act of 1986 16 U.S.C. § 450rr.
  • Department of Commerce Appropriations Act, 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-31 § 113 (2017).
  • R.M.S. Titanic Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 924 F. Supp. 714 (E.D. Va. 1996).
  • Anna Petrig & Maria Stemmler, Article 16 UNESCO Convention and the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, 69 Int'l & Compar. L. Q. 397-430 (2020).
  • Peter Hershey, RMS Titanic as National and World Heritage: Protecting the Wreck Site of the Titanic Pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act and the World Heritage Convention, 16 Fla. Coastal L. Rev. 279-302 (2015).
  • Peter Gorner, The Man Who Found the Titanic, Chicago Trib., March 19, 1987.
  • Josh B. Martin, Protecting Outstanding Underwater Cultural Heritage through the World Heritage Convention: The Titanic and Lusitania as World Heritage Sites, 33 Int'l. J. of Marine & Coastal L. 116-165 (2018).
  • University of R.I., The Titanic Discovery: Professor Ballard, YouTube (April 20, 2012),
  • Sarah Dromgoole, The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001 55 (2nd ed., 2006).

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.




  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.