On September 5th—only three days after a fatal fire on the dive boat, Conception, that killed 33 passengers and a crew member— the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, Inc., filed an action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to avoid liability for the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.
While the cause of the blaze is yet to be determined, the remains of the dive vessel now sit upside down at the bottom of the ocean near the Channel Islands. The commercial vessel was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Los Angeles at the time of the pre-dawn blaze during a charter for a three-day dive cruise. The island is about 30 miles west of Ventura, just north of Los Angeles. The Conception, a 75 ft., wooden-hulled 97-ton dive vessel, had 33 passengers and six crew members on board at the time of the fire on September 2, 2019 in the pre-dawn hours. Only five crew members survived.
The deceased were asleep in a bunkroom below the main deck when the fire broke out, according to sources. The below-deck sleeping area had 20 single bunks and 13 doubles, some stacked three-high, to accommodate up to 46 people. Reports show that the victims had no means of escape because both the exit and an escape hatch were most likely engulfed in flames. It is presumed that the 34 people reported dead had died of smoke inhalation.
Dr. Aaron Roland, who has dived on the Truth Aquatics fleet numerous times said, “The Conception was a wonderful vessel but escaping up the narrow staircase from below deck in a fire would be a nightmare.” Roland said he did not recall a second exit and didn’t believe the crew pointed it out to passengers at the times he was on board.
Five of the six crew members who escaped told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board they attempted to rescue victims who were trapped. After several rescue attempts, the five surviving crew members—on the upper deck at the time fire broke out—jumped ship.
That owners of Truth Aquatics, Inc., Glen and Dana Fritzler as trustees of the Fritzler Family Trust, have employed a well-known legal maneuver came as a surprise to many legal observers who question the timing of their action so soon after such a horrific disaster. The effort to exonerate from, limit liability and deny responsibility for this accident came just three days after 34 people on a Labor Day pleasure excursion tragically died at sea in navigable waters.
The maritime law cited, which dates back to 1851, was originally introduced to encourage shipping by limiting the shipping industry’s liability at sea. The ill-fated Titanic, owned by the White Star Line, used this protection to avoid compensating families of victims. In the case of the Titanic—a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court— it was determined that the protection could apply. Titanic plaintiffs withdrew their complaints and later sought compensation by filing lawsuits in England where a law that limited damages was not as strict as that in the U.S.
By introducing this action, the owners of the Conception claim no liability even if captain or crew members are found to be at fault. Truth Aquatics, Inc., and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler, must prove that they were not at fault to prevent further action by families of the deceased.
The action inhibits time allowed for families of the deceased to take action against the scuba boat’s owners. Victims’ families have only six months to file a claim. An investigation into the cause of the fire may take 12-18 months, according to authorities.
The action reads, “Plaintiffs desire to invoke the benefits of exoneration from or limitation of liability as provided by 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq., and in the same proceeding Plaintiffs desire to contest their liability and the liability of the CONCEPTION for any alleged loss or damages arising out of the aforesaid fire.”
The Fritzlers revealed in their action that they “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged.”
A non-jury trial will be held to determine if Truth Aquatics, Inc. was in fact, at fault. If a judge determines the company not at fault, anyone seeking a claim would be entitled to the value of the remains of the ship only which is considered a total loss.
Some legal observers believe there is a strong case to show negligence in the Conception fire. If the owners are found negligent, there is the potential for unlimited liability. If liability is proven, cases involving death such as these, are often settled prior to trial.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it is coordinating a “very lengthy, detailed and comprehensive investigation” that involves tracking down inspection records and other documents, interviewing crew members and witnesses and filming the submerged wreckage before it’s brought back to the surface.
The attorneys at Cowper Law LLP are former defense attorneys with a proven track record for handling wrongful death cases. The firm has a passion for representing families who have lost love ones as a result of the negligence of individuals, corporations and business entities. If someone you love has died as a result of this tragic accident, call us at 877.529.3707 for a free evaluation of your case today.