When OceanGate’s Titan submersible imploded on a trip to the Titanic wreckage— killing CEO Stockton Rush and four others—a lot was revealed about Rush and his company. But the biggest takeaway from the disclosures is that Rush did not take criticism well.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Rush was born into money, which itself provides a fair amount of insulation from criticism. And on top of that, he fashioned himself an “innovator” in a society that tends to laud the eye-popping self-confidence of those who pursue bold endeavors with the promise of bringing something new and exciting within humanity’s grasp.
But self-confidence can be a double-edged sword.
Great achievements and advancements have been made by innovators who dream big, think outside the box, and turn others’ doubts into motivation to succeed. But too much confidence can be blinding, leading fervent self-believers to dismiss or ignore valid criticism—and even to try silencing it.
A favorite tool of the rich and powerful for bullying critics into silence is the SLAPP: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
A SLAPP is a meritless lawsuit filed (or merely threatened) not to vindicate any rights, but instead to silence its target by imposing (or threatening to impose) the substantial cost and burden of litigating. The goal is not to win the case; the process is the punishment. Politicians use them to punish rivals or journalists for unflattering commentary, businesses use them to silence public reporting about their practices, sexual predators use them to cow their victims into silence, and entrepreneurs use them to suppress questioning of their claimed contributions.
One judge summarized the effect of SLAPPs this way: “Persons who have been outspoken on issues of public importance targeted in such suits or who have witnessed such suits will often choose in the future to stay silent. Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.”
The OceanGate tragedy demonstrates that SLAPPs are not only a metaphorical “gun to the head” of free expression, but also potentially to those who might have received the information targeted for suppression.
Many tried to warn Stockton Rush that he was flirting with deadly disaster. When Karl Stanley, a friend of Rush and a submersible expert, heard a cracking sound during a dive on the Titan, he cautioned Rush to conduct extensive testing on the hull. Rush replied to Stanley saying “Keep your opinions to yourself,” and “I hope you of all people will think twice before expressing opinions on subjects in which you are not fully versed.”
When Rob McCallum—an expedition leader and former adviser to OceanGate—raised concerns, Rush replied, “We have heard the baseless cries of 'you are going to kill someone' way too often. I take this as a serious personal insult.” Rush followed what might be the worst-aged email ever with a phone call to McCallum.
As McCallum recently explained to me, Rush threatened him with litigation if he criticized OceanGate to others. (To his great credit, McCallum told Rush that he would not be intimidated into silence by the threat.)
And when one of his own employees sounded the alarm about OceanGate’s dangerous trajectory, Rush lashed out with a SLAPP. David Lochridge, once OceanGate’s director of marine operations and chief submersible pilot, had serious concerns about the Titan’s safety. After his concerns were ignored by the company, Lochridge wrote a detailed inspection report of the vessel’s defects—resulting in his termination. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) informed OceanGate that it was investigating Lochridge’s termination as a whistleblower protection matter, things took an even uglier turn.
Rush and OceanGate had Washington attorney Thomas Gilman threaten that, if Lochridge did not withdraw his OSHA complaint and pay the company’s legal expenses, OceanGate would “sue him, take measures to destroy his professional reputation, and accuse him of immigration fraud.” And OceanGate did exactly that.
Ultimately, after being put through financial and emotional hell, Lochridge settled with OceanGate. In order to get the company to stop destroying his life, Lochridge withdrew his OSHA complaint and was forced into silence about the Titan’s safety issues.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether a full OSHA investigation and public scrutiny would have forced OceanGate to reconsider its plans, or if it would have deterred potential expeditioners from entrusting the company with their lives. But Stockton Rush and OceanGate did everything they could to ensure that they didn’t have to find out.
And while Rush got off “easy”—he doesn’t have to live with what he’s done—if I were a lawyer that he hired to silence safety concerns ultimately vindicated at the expense of four innocent lives, I’d be doing some painful soul-searching about how far I am willing to go for a billable hour.
Thirty-two states (and Washington, D.C.) have passed anti-SLAPP laws of varying strength that allow defendants to obtain speedy dismissal and force SLAPP-filers to cover their legal fees.
Unfortunately, David Lochridge didn’t have that option: Washington state’s Supreme Court ruled its anti-SLAPP law unconstitutional in 2015, and it wasn’t until 2021 that the legislature passed a revised law. And because most federal courts will not apply a state’s anti-SLAPP law, those laws can be easily evaded by filing in federal court. There is no federal anti-SLAPP law on the books, despite proposals in every Congress since 2009.
SLAPPs have terrible—but not usually deadly—consequences. This tragedy should serve as a wakeup call to state legislatures and Congress alike that they must do more, and soon, to prevent powerful interests from silencing speech they find inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing through abuse of the legal system.
Ari Cohn is a First Amendment and defamation lawyer who serves as Free Speech Counsel at TechFreedom, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to technology law and policy. Follow him on Twitter at @AriCohn and on Bluesky at @aricohn.com.