The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter, which was launched on June 7, 1958 in River Rouge, Michigan.
It was owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and was named after the then president of the company.
At the time it was the largest and longest vessel ever built on the Great Lakes being some 729 feet long with 26,000 tons of capacity.
This coming Sunday marks the 44th anniversary of her sinking Nov. 10, 1975 in a severe storm on Lake Superior near Whitefish Bay, Canada. A 29-member crew was aboard with no survivors. No bodies were ever recovered and the cause of the sinking has never been determined.
This tragedy has forever been memorialized by Gordon Lightfoot in his song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
As one can imagine the sinking created many legal issues including liability for the deaths. Since this happened on the navigable waters of the Great Lakes the “maritime laws” of the United States were applicable with the federal “Admiralty Court” having jurisdiction over most of the aspects of the sinking. State courts also had jurisdiction in certain areas.
Maritime or admiralty laws involve commerce and navigation on the high seas and other navigable waters.
Article III Section 2 of the United States Constitution empowers the federal courts to hear maritime and admiralty law cases.
The sinking resulted in two wrongful death lawsuits being filed by two of the widows against the owner and the operator of the ship. Maritime law provides that depending on the circumstances, liability is limited to the value of the ship plus its freight or it can be unlimited. It all depends on what the proofs show as to the degree of responsibility of the owner and/or operator for the loss.
The cases were eventually settled as well as other claims of many of the other survivors and the issue was never resolved.
As a result of this tragedy many new safety regulations were implemented for Great Lakes shipping.
A memorial service to honor the lost Fitzgerald crew will be held Sunday at the Old Mariners Church in Detroit. This is an annual event, which includes a ceremonial ringing of a ship’s bell.
A private moment of silence would also be a fitting tribute.