Three UA Little Rock students place first in national business legal writing competition

Madeline Burke

Three University of Arkansas at Little Rock students have been honored for their research highlighting what they call “unjust laws” that target vulnerable populations. 

The students earned first place for their legal writing skills from the Academy of Legal Studies and Business Conference in Montreal, Canada, in August. Their scores were based on a written law review article and oral presentation. 

Madeline Burke, senior international studies major, received the top student paper award in the individual category for her investigation of the use of an outdated maritime law used to limit shipowner’s liability in maritime accidents, while Ashley Murguia, senior international business major, and Alondra Cruz, sophomore marketing major, earned the top award in the group category for their paper investigating how the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) can be used to protect vulnerable immigrant populations.

Dr. Casey Rockwell, assistant professor of marketing and advertising, served as the students’ advisor.

“The University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the College of Business pride themselves on providing outstanding experiential learning opportunities to our students,” Rockwell said. “Through the support of the Donaghey Scholars program, the Signature Experience grants, and the High Impact Grants through the College of Business, students are able to present their research at the national and international levels to create a reputation of top notch scholars at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We could not be more proud of their efforts.” 

Burke’s winning paper, “Duck and Cover: The Gross Attempts of Limiting Liability in the Titanic, Deep Water Horizon, and Table Rock Lake Accidents with the 1851 Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act,” highlights the antiquated 1851 maritime law that has come under scrutiny to limit damages sought by victims of maritime accidents. 

Ripley Entertainment Inc. and Branson Duck Vehicles cited the obscure law in the multiple lawsuits they faced after the July 17, 2018, Duck Boat tourist accident that resulted in the death of 17 people in Missouri. 

“The law basically says that the owners of a vessel can limit their liability to the value of the boat and pending freight after the crash if they had no privity or knowledge of what directly caused the accident,” Burke said. “Because the boat sank to the bottom and there was no pending freight, the company could have theoretically owed the families of the victims nothing if the court had allowed them to use the law. Since then, they have supposedly settled most of the lawsuits against them. However, it is an example of how corporations attempt to use outdated laws as a logistical and strategic maneuver in court.” 

Burke’s paper focuses on how the 1851 Shipowner Liability Act has been used by maritime corporations to limit their liability in tragic accidents. Some of the most famous incidents include the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

“In the 1800s, maritime commerce was inherently risky,” Burke said. “The passage of the law was to promote the American maritime industry. From my research, it seems that the right of a vessel owner to limit their liability is universally recognized by many maritime nations. The importance of the Titanic is it made the law applicable to foreign vessel owners. They attempted to limit the liability to around $90,000, the value of the remaining lifeboats, but they settled out of court for significantly more. It also raises the question of why the Shipowner Liability Act should apply to foreign vessel owners if its original purpose was to protect and encourage the American maritime industry.” 

Burke hopes her paper will draw attention to the harm this law can cause for the victims of maritime accidents and their families and that the U.S. government will adopt a change to the law. 

In 1976, the International Maritime Organization adopted a treaty called the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims. This treaty increases the amount of funds that victims can be awarded for personal injury and loss of life claims. The U.S. has not ratified this treaty, but Burke hopes it will be ratified in time to bring the maritime law up to date. 

“I want to highlight the gross inequity that this act can have on victims and to possibly encourage the U.S. to ratify the 1976 convention to better align itself with other maritime nations,” Burke said. 

Deidre Smith, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, wrote a letter of commendation for Burke and Rockwell. 

“Dr. Casey Rockwell has immense dedication to student research and developing scholars,” Smith wrote. “I know she must be extremely proud of working with Ms. Burke and seeing her excel and gaining recognition. Ms. Burke is an extremely bright and impressive young woman that I am honored to acknowledge for her vision for a better future concerning the maritime industry. It gives me great hope for the outlook of our nation if she is an example of the country’s future leadership.” 

Meanwhile, Cruz and Murguia won the group competition for their paper, “Using RICO as a Tool for the Defense of Immigrants: Ensuring Lawyer Ethics through Civil RICO.”

The paper introduces a new application of civil RICO, in which the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) can be used to prosecute attorneys in enterprises that prey on vulnerable immigrant populations seeking legal and professional assistance. 

“As Latina women, both my partner and I have very close ties to this immigrant population, and we have both witnessed or know of someone that was affected by visa fraud or malpractice committed by attorneys,” Cruz said. “There are not that many avenues of aid or protection for immigrant populations, and we hope that through our paper, we can bring to light the realities of being an immigrant in the United States and open new means of protection to victims that fit the application of RICO we proposed.”

Murguia said the research has given her an opportunity to be an advocate for immigrants seeking justice. 

“This is a population who have built their whole lives within the U.S. and want to do right, but attorneys prey on that vulnerability,” Murgia said. “Having the opportunity to shed light on the problem makes me very happy because it brings awareness to this hidden problem and also enforces the fair justice system that we believe we have. My partner and I are aware that we’ve scratched only the top of the problem, but we’re determined to be the voice of those who have been silenced.”

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