Jensen v. White Star Lines (c) Anderson Kill & Olick 1998
Teacher's Guide to Jensen v. White Star Lines


The movie, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, has created great interest in the story of  the Titanic. This site gives teachers a way to use the interest generated by the movie to illustrate how the American judicial system works. It was designed for teachers and students to participate in a mock trial involving the tragic story of the Titanic.

The case involves true facts of the Titanic's maiden voyage which resulted in over 1500 fatalities.  This Teacher's Guide will help you prepare your class for the trial by covering such issues as Assignment of Roles, Timing of the Trial, Legal Issues and Skills.

Students need not be limited to just the facts presented on the website. They may add facts to their arguments from a variety of sources  as long as they are consistent with the mock trial facts as we have prepared it.  The story is based on actual people who were on the Titanic, but certain literary embellishments have been added, particularly as to what Hans Jensen did the night the Titanic sunk.  Since neither he nor fiancé's male relatives survived  the accident to tell their story, we have created a plausible possibility of what might have happened to them that night.

Assignment of Roles

The roles of the plaintiff, defendant, attorneys, bailiff, witnesses, and jurors should be assigned prior to the material being handed out.  Listed below are the roles that may be assigned to students:

                    Plaintiff: Carla Christine Jensen (19) was the fiancé of  twenty-one year old Hans Peder Jensen.  Despite the fact that both had the same last name, they were never married.  They prepared wills before leaving on their trip naming each other executors.  Carla, as executor of Hans' will  is suing the owner of the Titanic, White Star Lines, for negligence in operating the boat and causing the death of her fiancé.

                    Plaintiff Attorney(s): You may assign as many attorneys to represent Carla as needed.  Attorneys can be assigned individually or as teams to handle particular witness' testimony, research, preparation, and document-drafting. You can even assign one class to represent the plaintiff and another to represent the defendants.
                      Defendant: White Star Lines - appears at trial by Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. Second Officer Lightoller was on-duty when the Titanic hit the iceberg and can testify about White Star Lines' duty of care towards its passengers, whether this duty was breached and whether the breach caused the death of Hans Jensen.

                    Defendant's Attorney(s): You may assign as many attorneys to represent White Star Lines as needed.  Attorneys can handle particular parts of the testimony, preparation, and document-drafting, if any.

                   Witness:  Lieutenant Mauritz Hakan Bjornstrom-Steffanson The Lieutenant was a Swedish Military attaché.  Mauritz will testify about his interaction with the deceased, Hans Peder Jensen, prior to his jumping on to the last life boat to leave the ship, Collapsible Boat D, as it was being lowered away.

                    Bailiff: The role of the Bailiff is optional and requires a student to announce the beginning and ending of the proceeding, call witnesses, administer oaths and take the jury's verdict to the judge.

                    Jury: Between six and twelve students should be assigned to play the roles of jurors. Their deliberations can be public so students can see the interaction of jurors or private as in a real trial.

                    Judge: We recommend the teacher play the role of the judge.  He or she should keep track of time, rule on admissibility of evidence and on any motions made.

                 The trial can be done in as little 45 minutes as set forth below, but works better if done over two days with research assigned before the first days hearing.  A 2 day trial will also give students the feeling for the amount of preparation that goes on each day after the trial is over.  The short trial can be done as follows:

                                    Trial Preparation:                                                            10 minutes
                                    Opening Statements:                                                       2 minutes for each party
                                    Plaintiff's Case:                                                               10 minutes
                                    Defendant's Case:                                                           10 minutes
                                    Optional: Defendant's motion of directed verdict:               1 minute
                                        Ruling on motion to dismiss for its case:                       1 minute
                                        Plaintiff's rebuttal of defenses                                      5 minutes
                                    Closing Statements:                                                         2 minutes for each party
                                    Jury Deliberation:                                                            5-10 minutes
                                    Verdict and Judgment:                                                     2 minutes

If witnesses do not get on and off quickly and are allowed to ramble, the trial could easily be two hours. The class should participate in a post-trial discussion about the issues involved and the positive and negative aspects of each party's representation.

Legal Issues
In order for the plaintiff to prevail in this case, all elements of negligence must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.  The defense counsel should raise defenses such as Hans contributory negligence, superseding cause that breaks the causal connection between White Star's negligent acts and Hans' death and assumption of the risk. The law applied in this case has some of the aspects of the law of New York during the year of 1912, which is much more pro-company than is today's law. For example contributory negligence is no longer an absolute bar to plaintiff recovering.  Most states now use some form of comparative negligence so that negligence by the plaintiff reduces the amount that the plaintiff can recover rather than barring all coverages as happens with contributory negligence. For older students, you may want to discuss, the consequences for society if the jury decides not follow the law as set forth by the judge.

Skills and Subjects
This exercise was developed so that students could develop their public speaking skills, research abilities and writing techniques.  You may require students to submit legal briefs outlining the analysis of their arguments prior to trial.  Alternatively, after the jury has rendered its verdict, the class can write the judge's opinion which must justify the jury's verdict.  A third possibility would be to have your students prepare an appellate brief for either party arguing why the verdict should be overturned or upheld on appeal.

While this virtual trial teaches about the U.S. Judicial system, students will also learn about history at a time when classes in society and particularly European society, had a major effect on daily life and the way people behaved even in life threatening emergencies. Students will also use math skills to compute damages and to argue about which calculation methodology should be used.  Damages can be made very complex, e.g. net inflation adjusted, after tax compensation or fairly simple years of life expectancy times present wages.

Ideally, this project should consist of both Internet and library research.  Students will find lots of material on the Web and in books.  For example, there are pictures of Carla Jensen on the web. (We did not find any pictures of Hans and face in the header image is a stand-in.) Some of  the information the students will find is contradictory or wrong. Being able to distinguish reliable information from unreliable and implausible information is another important skill that can be developed through the mock trial.  Obviously, things said in the Titantic movie by DiCaprio or Winslet are fictitious and inadmissable.  While the Titantic movie was very well researched and is much more accurate than many "historical" movies things such as the loading of the lifeboats and other scenes from the movie are not admissible evidence unless it can be shown by other evidence, such as the testimony of the witnesses that movie represents a true depiction of what actually happened (and even then most real courts would not allow such evidence.) You, acting as judge, can help students distinguish between admissible, reasonable, reliable information and speculation, gossip and hearsay.

If you want to make this a week long unit, you could, follow the following outline:


Titanic Trial Week Schedule
Monday:  Discuss the Titanic and assign roles
Tuesday: Student research, interview witnesses 
Wednesday:  Prepare pre-trial motions and review testimony
Thursday:  Preliminary hearing to rule on evidence and jury selection
Friday: Trial and verdict 
Multi-class and non-classroom groups
In addition to working with a single class, you can also use this material with multiple classes participating.  For example you could have one class represent the plaintiff, another class could represent the defendant and witnesses could be drawn from a third class or even a different grade. Witnesses could also be other adults. With larger numbers of students, groups can be assigned to different duties such as interviewing witnesses, preparing motions, and library and Internet research

The website can also be used in non-classroom settings such as with scout troops for a law merit badge. Other groups that could use the material:

Let us know how things go. 

Judicial Process | Plaintiff | Defendant | Basic Facts | Negligence Law | Defenses | Witnesses
Jury Charge | Verdict Sheet | Contact AKO


Links | Glossary | Awards & Comments | Estate of Peder Jensen | Carla Christine Jensen's Information for her Attorney | The White Star Line | Second Officer Lightoller's Memo to the White Star's Lawyer | Mauritz Hakan Bjornstrom-Steffansson's Letter to White Star Line Counsel | Plaintiff's Exhibit I | Teacher's Guide to Jensen v. White Star Lines | The Judicial Process in the US

Anderson Kill & Olick Home Page