A Titanic Property Exam Question

December 30th, 2014

For my Property II final, I situated the situation on the Titanic, and the iceberg crashes into Staten Island causing a situation for the Situation. There are a number of direct quotations from the movie, plus a reference to Leo and Kate’s “finger-painting” in the car. Plus, I ask whether using eminent domain to seize a ship that is underwater would be a public use (I think Justice Stevens would say yes under Kelo). As for Titanic, Mythbusters determined that the only way Rose and Jack could have both survived, was by wrapping the life jacket around the piece of wood. So much for never letting go.

You are a law clerk for Chief Justice Cameron of the Court of Admiralty. You are asked to prepare a memorandum of 500 words that analyzes a series of Titanic property disputes that occurred on the high seas, and on land. While at sea, the ship captain acts as a governmental official, and all of his orders are subject to the restrictions imposed on the government by the United States Constitution. The Court of Admiralty adheres to all of the federal constitutional precedents as decided the United States Supreme Court, and follows a common law approach to property as articulated in the Restatement (First) of Property. There is no zoning law at sea, but all common law torts apply. With respect to the laws respecting accretion and avulsion, the Court of Admiralty follows the precedents of the Supreme Court of Texas. The adverse possession period for all claims is two years.

Titanus was called the “ship of dreams.” And it was. It really was. The so-called unsinkable boat—the largest in the world—set out on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City.

The Titanus was under the control of Captain, who was responsible for making all of the orders and decision on board. He acted like the Mayor of the ship.

The decks of the Titanus were divided into separate classes, each treated as separate tracts of property at sea: Cabins on Firstacre, were owned by the wealthiest passengers. Middle-class passengers resided in cabins on Secondacre. Finally, cabins on Thirdacre were all the poorest passengers at sea could afford.

Residing in a cabin on Firstacre was Rose, the beautiful heiress, and her fiance Hockley, the wealthy industrialist. Rose was very unhappy with her situation. To cheer her up, Hockley put a gigantic 56-carat diamond on her neck, called “The Heart of the Ocean.” Rose couldn’t care less about it, quipping sarcastically, “It’s overwhelming.”

Slumming it in a cabin on Thirdacre was Jack. Jack, a drifter without a home, won a ticket onto the Titanus after playing a lucky hand in poker.

During the first evening of the voyage, Rose was leaning against the balcony, thinking about taking her own life by jumping into the ocean. Jack saw her, and talked her out of suicide. She was grateful, and invited Jack back to a dinner in the glamorous ballroom of Firstacre. In truth, it was love at first sight. “Near, far, wherever you are,” Rose sang to herself, “I believe that the heart does go on.”

Captain is furious that such a low-class vagabond was dining with the aristocrats. Captain cooks up a scheme to make it impossible for the poorest passengers to reside on Titanus.

In Order #1, the Captain orders that 75% of the cabins in Thirdacre be converted to more expensive cabins, that will be reassigned to Firstacre. The Captain reasons that there is not enough room for the upper-class passengers who pay higher fees—even though many cabins on Firstacre are vacant. He offers no compensation to those displaced.

In Order #2, the Captain orders that no more than 3 unrelated people can live together in a cabin on Thirdacre. He places no limitations on those who can live together on Firstacre and Second acre.

Jack is furious with these two orders. He shared a cabin on Thirdacre with three of his best friends, who were like family to him! As a result, he has nowhere to live on Titanus. Jack asks Captain, “Where am I supposed to live?” Captain replies, “Not my problem. Aren’t you the King of the World?”

With all this newfound space, Hockley has an idea. He proposes to expand his cabin on Firstacre, which was only one floor, to be three stories tall. The first floor would be on Thirdacre, the second floor would be on Secondacre, and the penthouse suite would be on Firstacre. It was undisputed that the extension would not impact the health, safety, or welfare of those on Titanus. However, the three-story cabin would not fit in with the appearance of the rest of the cabins, which are all only one-story tall. The Captain, appalled by the idea of having a three-story cabin, tells him to stop. Hockley refuses.

The Captain then issues Order #3, which designates any cabin that is “out of place” a nuisance that must be enjoined.

The Captain then takes a walk down to Thirdacre, and is appalled by the squalid and filthy conditions. He issues Order #4, finding that Thirdacre is “blighted,” and ordering that all of the cabins on the deck be seized from their owners through the power of eminent domain. Captain decides that he will pursue the condemnation of Thirdacre in the Admiralty Court after the ship arrives in New York.

That evening, Jack was furious. He had nowhere to live, and his cabin on Thirdacre would soon be condemned. He plucked out Rose from her cabin, and the two partied below deck, before fingerpainting in a car. Hockley caught them in flagrante delicto, and demanded that Rose return the diamond to Hockley. Rose obliges and gives him the “Heart of the Ocean.” But Hockley has a better idea. When Jack isn’t looking, Hockley puts the diamond in Jack’s coat pocket, and then accuses him of stealing the jewelry. Jack is arrested on the spot, and locked up in Captain’s chambers.

Then, the unthinkable happened. The Titanus slammed into a massive iceberg, tearing an enormous gash in the side of the boat’s hull. The unsinkable ship began to sink. Rather than honorably going down with the ship, Captain and Hoakley sneak onto a lifeboat by carrying a baby, as they sing along with the never-ending band, “For those in peril on the sea…”

Jack miraculously manages to escape, and finds Rose as the ship is sinking. Jack gives Rose his coat to keep her warm. What neither realizes is that the diamond was still in the coat pocket.

Silently, the Titanus falls into the fathoms below. Rose and Jack are left treading in the freezing water. For reasons that are totally unclear, the duo is not able to float together on a huge piece of wood adrift in the ocean. Rose stays warm on top, while Jack succumbs to hypothermia below. Rose promises Jack that she will “never let go.” Five seconds later she lets go, allowing her soul mate to descend into the depths. But Rose survives. She must have meant that her “heart does go on,” not Jack’s, whose heart promptly stopped beating.

Soon Rose is rescued, and transported to New York harbor. As she passes the Statue of Liberty, she realizes that she has the diamond in her coat pocket. She thinks about selling it, but the thought of the money reminds her of Hockley. Instead, she holds onto it.

Rose was not the only one to arrive in New York. The Titanus had struck the iceberg so hard, that it changed its course, and the glacier washed up on the shores of Staten Island. After the iceberg melted, it dumped millions of gallons of water onto the Staten Island beach, and pushed the vegetation line of Tanacre towards the waterline by about 15 feet. Situation, the owner of Tanacare, started to cheer, and exclaimed “I just got a lot more land. Now that’s a situation.”

Situation files for a permit to build a combination Gym/Tanning Salon/Laundromat on the newly formed land on Tanacre. The government denies his permit, explaining that (1) the new land beyond the new vegetation line belongs to the state, and (2) that it is a protected wetland, so he cannot build anything on it. “It’s worthless,” he screams! The Situation’s tan face turns pale with anger.

Despite the fact that the Titanus rests on the bottom of the ocean floor, several lawsuits have bubbled up to the surface.

  1. Hockley challenges Order #3, asserting that since there is no zoning law at sea, Captain has incorrectly applied nuisance doctrine. Captain counterclaims, asserting that in the absence of zoning law, Order #3 is an appropriate application of nuisance doctrine. Please address the strengths and weaknesses of Hockley and Captain’s arguments, focusing on all relevant legal, economic, and policy grounds.
  1. Jack challenges the constitutionality of Orders #1 and #2, asserting that they violated his rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Captain counterclaims, asserting that each was a valid action taken pursuant to the police power. Please address the strengths and weaknesses of Jack and Captain’s arguments with respect to (1) Order #1 and (1) Order #2, and conclude who should prevail on each claim.
  1. Even though the Titanus is underwater—both literally and financially—Captain proceeds with the condemnations pursuant to Order #4. He wants to seize by eminent domain the “blighted” (and submerged) cabins on Thirdacre. Jack challenges the condemnation, asserting that this is not a taking for “public use.” Under the Supreme Court’s precedents, how would this taking be resolved?
  1. Following the denial of his permit, Situation files a suit, alleging that (1) he acquired the new land following the melting of the iceberg, and (2) the designation of his property as a wetland was a taking. How should the court resolve each of these two claims?
  1. Three years after the sinking of the Titanus, Hockley files an action in replevin demanding the return of the “Heart of the Ocean” diamond from Rose. Rose claims she acquired it through adverse possession. How should the court resolve this claim?