Students hear 90-year-old wrongful death case in mock trial project

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2003

More than 90 years after the Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean, a jury has found the company that owned and operated the ship responsible for at least one death in the accident.

The White Star Line will have to pay damages to Carla Jensen, the Danish fiancee of Hans Peder Jensen, who lost his life in the tragedy.

Well, sort of.

The company would have to pay if Carla Jensen was alive -- and if the trial was real.

In fact, though Judge David Landry heard the case -- the estate of Hans Jensen v. The White Star Line -- Friday at the Kenai Court House, the trial was a little less than official.

The lawyers weren't certified by the American Bar Association, the witnesses had no valid identification and the jurors were not selected by official means -- they were all students in John in Berni Wensley's fourth-grade classes at Mountain View Elementary School.

The idea of the mock trial started with a nationwide law firm, Anderson, Kill and Olick. Each year on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, the law firm conducts the mock trial to help youngsters learn about the trial process. According to the firm's Web site, the children were so interested in the activity, firm members decided to offer the curriculum to other educators.

The firm posts the trial information -- from biographical information on the witnesses to exhibits in the case to pertinent law data -- on its Web site for teachers to use in their own classes.

The Wensleys have been working on the mock trial project for about five months, arranging the help of Judge Landry and the use of the courtroom, while students researched the history of the Titanic, the congressional hearings on the accident and trial procedures.

On Friday, each student was in full character. Both the plaintiff and defense had teams of four lawyers each, as well as a series of key witnesses. Twelve other students served as jurors. Though they had heard the testimony in practices, they did not come up with a verdict until the end of the official trial.

The case centered around a complaint filed by Carla Jensen, a passenger on the Titanic and fiancee of Hans Peder Jensen. According to the record, Mr. Jensen, a third-class passenger on the ship, had managed to board a lifeboat as the ship was sinking, but was asked to make room for more women and children. While some men in the lifeboat simply moved over, Hans and three others got out of the boat, then were not allowed to get back in before the rescue vehicle was dropped into the ocean. Hans died aboard the sinking Titanic.

"All Carla's hopes and dreams sank with the Titanic," Isaac Cryer, an attorney for the plaintiff, said in his opening statement Friday.

Not only were the pair engaged to be married, maid Carla Jensen was depending in part on Hans Jensen's wages as a carpenter in their new life in America, the defense said.

The Titanic -- billed as the "unsinkable ship" -- was carrying about 2,200 passengers the night of April 14, 1912, when the boat struck an iceberg and began taking on water. Only 705 survived.

According to witnesses for the plaintiff, the ship carried only enough lifeboats to save about half of the passengers in the event of an accident.

White Star engineer Morgan Pirre (played by fourth-grader Morgan Tucker) testified for the plaintiff that he had requested the company install more lifeboats prior to sailing, but his superiors deemed that the additions would "make the deck look cluttered."

Another engineer, Elizabeth Henry (played by fourth-grader Joleen Moonin) testified that, though the ship had double bulkheads to compartmentalize any water that the boat took on, the bulkheads were not topped, allowing water to flow from one compartment to another.

This is what caused the boat to sink, Henry said.

In addition to these problems, plaintiff witnesses also testified that the crew of the ship had no practiced evacuation plan and were unorganized and inefficient in their response to the emergency.

"People were screaming and yelling," testified Molly Brown (played by Samantha Little), a passenger on the ship. She said the lifeboats were not filled to capacity, and crew members jumped in to save themselves while passengers waited on the deck of the sinking ship. She also said that though her lifeboat had plenty of extra room, crew members would not go back to save other passengers.

Capt. Arthur Henry Rostrom (played by Hunter Klink) of the Carpathia, the ship that responded to the distress signal from the Titanic and rescued the survivors, also testified for the plaintiff. He said he would consider it negligent to order the ship to push 24 knots in an ice field and to delay sending a distress signal after hitting the iceberg.

Under cross examination, however, Capt. Rostrom admitted he was familiar with Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith's reputation as a good seaman. He also said none of the rescued Titanic passengers told him they blamed the ship's crew for the accident.

"They blamed the iceberg," he said.

The defense argued that though the White Star Line was sorry for the deaths that occurred, Hans Peder Jensen made choices the night of the accident that led to his own death.

Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (played by Codi Woodcock) testified that there was no need for Mr. Jensen to leave the lifeboat to make room for other passengers. He simply could have moved over, Lightoller said. He also added that no one restrained Jensen from getting back into the lifeboat, though Lightoller admitted he did not offer Jensen an opportunity to do so before lowering the boat.

Defense attorneys also tried to make the argument that Jensen was intoxicated at the time of the accident, but witnesses could not confirm the accusation.

Hugh Woolner (played by Hayden Taylor) was another of the men who got out of the lifeboat with Jensen after being ordered to make room for women and children. Woolner, however, jumped back into the lifeboat as it was being lowered. He testified that Hans could have done the same.

"Hans had the opportunity to be saved," said defense attorney Courtney Parker during her closing argument. "The White Star Line is deeply sorry for his death, however many people were saved that night."

Though both the defense and plaintiff attorneys said they believed they made good cases, the jury took only about 10 minutes to deliberate the case before coming back with a verdict.

The jury found that there was a direct connection between the actions of the crew and Hans Peder Jensen's death. They also found that Mr. Jensen was not contributorily negligent in his own death and did not assume the risk of his own death by his actions the night of the accident.

Closing the trial, Judge Landry thanked the jurors for their service.

Later, he added that he also appreciated all the kids' hard work in preparation for the mock trial.

"Overall, the kids did a terrific job," he said. "It's amazing at this age their professionalism."

Landry said he believes some of the students' skills had to do with their exposure to the court system from television.

But, he added, it also had a lot to do with their hard work.

"They took it seriously and played their parts extremely efficiently," he said.

Landry said he believes such school projects are important for students because they learn not only about due process and the legal tenants of the country, but also about positive conflict resolution.

"It's a whole lot better than fighting things out on the streets or pulling guns," he said.

The kids also said they enjoyed the activity -- so much that they appreciated the extra work.

"It's fun to question witnesses," said Isaac Cryer. "You go up to them, with the judge looking down and you get to use a loud voice."

Rebecca Satathite also said she enjoyed playing an attorney.

"You have all this stuff to do on weekends, extra homework, but then you get to call witnesses up and ask them questions," she said.

Other students also said they enjoyed researching the Titanic and acting out semi-real characters from the past.

"You get to know who they were," said Casey Crowder, who played Arthur John Bright, a witness for the plaintiff.

Maybe the most telling aspect of the students' enthusiasm about the project, however, came from Carolyn Knutsen.

"When you get bored, you can go to the library and learn more," she said.

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