The wide brim of Margaret Brown’s Edwardian-era hat rose as she recalled, at the request of attorney Philip Koelsch, her experience of being in a lifeboat as the luxury liner Titanic sank into the icy Atlantic ocean in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.
“There was a huge splash as we were hit with water from the wave (of its sinking),” she told jurors seated nearby. “I remember the silence, then the screams of people in the water as they were drowning. (Lifeboat captain) Mr. Hitchens wouldn’t let us return … but I told him, ‘Listen! If you don’t let us row, the women will freeze to death.’”
Brown recounted that fateful night, one marked by chaos and half-empty lifeboats, as she sat in the witness chair in a Mayborn Museum auditorium serving this week as courtroom.
Then came a cross-examination by Mike Hartnett, who sought to shift jurors’ attention from her action in the disaster that cost about 1,500 lives to an admission that, maybe, just maybe, her view of confusion and lifeboat operation that night might be a limited one, and not the whole picture of what was happening.
Brown, of course, was not the real Margaret “Molly” Brown, who died in 1932, but Waco actress Cathy Hawes. Attorneys Koelsch and Hartnett are third-year Baylor University Law School students taking part in this week’s “Titanic On Trial.” The trial’s robed presiding judge, Gerald Powell, is a law professor who teaches the school’s Practice Court.
The trial at hand, a civil liabilities case, pitted Titanic survivor Madeleine Astor and Esther Hart, whose husbands died in the ship’s sinking, against White Star Line ship company owner International Mercantile Marine Co. and the Titanic’s builder, Harland & Wolff.
The legal action never happened but is a fictitious Practice Court case that became this week’s publicly viewed example not so much of living history but living jurisprudence.
The Mayborn Museum’s current touring exhibit, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” provided an opportunity for the law school and museum to collaborate on a mock trial that offers a different angle to the 1912 passenger ship sinking that has captured the public’s imagination ever since: Namely, whose fault, legally speaking, was it?
The Titanic trial is one of several used in Practice Court, a requirement for third-year students and a demanding introduction to the world of courtroom practice and procedure.
“It’s a rigorous, intense course — one of the things Baylor is known for across the country,” Powell, the professor, said. “It’s the Marine Corps boot camp of law school.”
Law student John Haydon, part of the Astors and Harts’ six-attorney team, agreed.
“It’s incredibly difficult, but so is the law,” Haydon said.
The Titanic case, a fictitious one but built from actual testimony at both U.S. Senate and British Board of Trade hearings, was part of the Practice Court case rotation for about 10 years, but had been retired for some time because of the number of students required and some 1,000 pages of depositions students need to read in preparation, Powell said.
The Mayborn Museum’s Titanic exhibit that opened in May, however, provided a reason to revive the case, Powell said.
The weeklong case mixed 21st century law and historical 1912 characters one would expect to participate if a liability case had been brought in 1915.
“What we will tell our jury is that our witnesses are 1912 people that a ‘time machine’ has brought into the 21st century,” Powell said.
While the public might find the history intriguing, the Titanic trial offers some practical training in thorny legal issues, Powell said. The plaintiffs claim negligence by the two companies, raising questions of design and use of substandard materials such as iron, not steel, rivets, for Harland and Wolff, and issues of speed in iceberg territory, insufficient lifeboats and staff emergency training for International Mercantile Marine.
The two plaintiffs bring additional issues to consider. Astor was pregnant with her son John Jacob Astor VI at the time of the accident, so the son’s name is not in Astor’s will that left much to his oldest son Vincent, creating an inheritance issue to consider.
Second-class passengers Esther and Eva Hart claim damages for emotional trauma they suffered as well as from estimated losses from an unfinished career and an unrealized construction project by husband and father Benjamin Hart.
As a result, the mock trial required counsel representing four parties, parties that allied at times and attacked at others, and sprawled over five afternoons of testimony and statements. Powell pointed out, however, that had the Titanic sunk today, a contemporary liability trial could involve more than 100 attorneys and take a year or more.
Waco-area volunteers rounded out the courtroom personalities, from the jury that would make its decision to the witnesses testifying during the trial. Hawes, a Waco Civic Theatre veteran, was joined by acting colleagues Piers Bateman, who portrayed explorer Ernest Shackleton, and Laura Meier-Marx, a Titanic steward. Witnesses were given material about the person they were to play but not a script to memorize.
“I was a little nervous about that but I’ve never been on a jury before, either,” said Hawes, who tapped the Waco Civic Theatre costume wardrobe for the stylish black-and-white period dress she wore.
Playing the Titanic’s most famous survivor, a plucky Denver socialite whose experience won her the nickname the Unsinkable Molly Brown, brought Hawes back to her high school days, when she performed in the stage musical of the same name.
“I’ve always known the story, but it was fun to be her,” Hawes said.
Krista Brinser, a 2013 Baylor graduate and a current university employee, took the stand to portray plaintiff Madeleine Astor. Questioning took her through the traumatic memories of that night and also the whiff of scandal in New York social circles still buzzing over Astor’s divorce of his first wife to marry the much younger Madeleine.
“It was intense,” Brinser said later, adding she expected it would be. Her husband is a Baylor Law School graduate and well acquainted with Practice Court.
The weeklong trial gave others a chance to play along. Mayborn Museum staffers ran a live Twitter account of trial testimony while recent Baylor University art graduate Edith Juanah sketched pastel drawings of witnesses and attorneys as a court artist.
Jurors even got to visit “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” to see — under glass — one of the ship rivets at issue in trial. Those watching the trial not only heard accounts from actual participants in the Titanic story, but saw period photographs, diagrams and maps projected on a screen above the courtroom proceedings.
For the law students, history was a side issue for the legal lessons learned.
“It was like being thrown into the pool. I knew nothing about maritime law … or rivets and bulkheads,” said Savannah Hostetter, who served as Harland and Wolff’s counsel with Lamisa Imam. “Most people haven’t heard the whole story. The ship was in compliance with safety procedures and had an innovative design for its day.”
Hartnett, International Mercantile Marine attorney with Sorsha Huff, said the trial offered practical experience for navigating a multi-party trial.
“Half the time the two defendants are working together and half the time they’re against each other,” Hartnett said. “You’re learning how to work with someone and against someone when you need to — and how to be a professional about it.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Haydon had high praise for his colleagues.
“There are some incredible future attorneys on this case,” he said.
Research for the case took him into territory different from the child advocacy law he hopes to practice after earning his degree.
“I think it’s very frustrating that under admiralty law today, cargo has better protection than people do,” Haydon said. “And I know a whole lot about the rivets on the Titanic.”
Ultimately, the jury remained deadlocked Friday evening and was unable to reach a verdict.
However, the jury reached a consensus on one question it was tasked with answering, agreeing the Titanic did not have a design defect, Mayborn spokeswoman Rebecca Tucker Nall said. That led Harland and Wolff to ask to be severed from the case against International Mercantile Marine, a request Powell granted. The judge declared a mistrial in the case against International Mercantile Marine.
The tragic 1912 sinking of the luxury ocean liner RMS Titanic with the loss of some 2,200 passengers is a story that still captivates modern-d…