Titanic disaster led to stricter maritime safety standards

The tragic sinking of the Titanic spurred lawmakers into drastically changing the rules and regulations governing maritime safety to avoid a similar disaster.

Titanic and maritime law

11 years ago
Duration 1:40
Marc Isaacs, lawyer and Adjunct Professor of Admiralty Law at the University of Toronto Law School explains how Titanic changed maritime law.

Following the sinking of the Titanic, maritime laws and safety standards were changed in order to ensure such a tragedy would not happen again.

Marc Isaacs, a Toronto-based maritime lawyer, said the sinking acted as a catalyst to speed up the process of changing maritime safety standards.

"My sense of it is that movement to change laws was already in progress," he said. "Titanic happened at a particular period of time when we were moving out of ships of sail and into ships of steel. We were also moving out of a time of navigating by atmospheric instruments to beginning to navigate using more electronic instruments and better technology.

"The sinking wasn't necessarily the wake-up call, but it was a big momentous event that reminded people safety had to be dealt with."

In the months and years following the sinking, ice patrols on the North Atlantic Ocean became more frequent and rigorous; stricter rules regarding on-board radios were introduced, requiring crews to man them at all times; lifeboat safety drills were made mandatory; and in 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was created, replacing a patchwork of national conventions with one global maritime safety standard.

Isaacs said one aspect of maritime law that did not change until many years after the Titanic disaster was the limitation of a ship owner's liability after an accident. In 1912, a ship owner (White Star Line, in Titanic's case) would only be liable for the value of whatever parts of the ship remained intact, regardless of how many people died in the incident.

Therefore, Titanic survivors or victims' families only received a payout based on the value of the Titanic's lifeboats — since the rest of the ship sank to the ocean floor.

"At the time of the Titanic, ship owners were only liable for what's known as the casualty value of the vessel," Isaacs said. "Now, that didn’t make a lot of sense because what would happen was that the bigger the casualty rate, the more likely there would be even less money available for claimants.

"Over time, the needle shifted, and in 1957, there was a convention where limitation of liability amounts were moved off of the post-casualty value of the vessel to a standard based on tonnage."

Learn more about the Titanic's influence on maritime safety in the video interviews with Isaacs above.