Owners of Conception Dive Boat Seek to Limit Liability for Wrongful Death and Personal Injury Claims from Families of Victims of the Fire Deaths

The owners of the Santa Barbara dive boat that burned during the Labor Day weekend by the Chanel Islands, killing 34 people on board, including 33 passengers and one crew member, are attempting to not only limit their liability but actually are attempting to use an old Maritime law so they do not have to pay any compensation at all to the families of those killed or any money to anyone else who may have been injured.

Since this horrific incident occurred on a boat at sea it is governed by United States maritime law, which is different than the law most of us are used to.   Under U.S. maritime law, the owners of a ship may be responsible or liable for personal injuries and deaths, as well as other losses and damages.  But also under maritime law this legal responsibility or liability may be limited to the value of the ship and its freight at the end of the voyage if the owner of the ship can show the acts of negligence or unseaworthiness that caused the injury or loss were not known and should not have been known by the owners of the ship.

And, of course, the owners of the Conception, or perhaps their insurers, are trying to take advantage of this antiquated, unconscionable and unfair law to limit their liability because the value post voyage is probably nothing or zero dollars (except for some possible salvage value of the destroyed boat which may be exceeded by the salvage costs).

In fact, as a result of maritime law allowing ship owners to limit their liability, the Los Angeles Times (Friday, Sept 6, 2019, B1) reported that lawyers for the owners of the Conception dive boat already filed a petition in federal court for their clients, Truth Aquatics Inc., Glen Fritzler and his wife, Dana Fritzler, to either end their liability or to lower their liability to the value of the post fire value of the ship which now is considered to be nothing or zero dollars.  So instead of working with the families of those killed in this horrific incident, and trying to comfort them, the ship’s owners rushed to court with their petition to limit or eliminate their liability, compelling the grieving families to seek legal assistance.

The specific law, known as the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 [46 U.S.C. app. Section 183 (1984)], states, in relevant part, as follows:

“The liability of the owner of any vessel, whether American or foreign, for any … loss, or destruction by any person of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board of such vessel, or for any loss, damage, or injury by collision, or for any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage, … done, occasioned, or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of such owner or owners, shall not, …exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in such vessel, and her freight then pending.”

It is unknown if the petition filed by the owners to limit their liability considers the exceptions, including when the negligence or unseaworthiness of the ship that caused the injury or loss was known or reasonably should have known to owners of the ship before it occurred.

And according to news reports, there may be several bases for arguing the owners knew or reasonably should have known of negligent or unseaworthiness conditions on the ship.  If the lawyers for the families of the victims and any of the five (5) crew members who escaped can prove this, then the limitations on liability in this 1851 law may NOT apply.  Here are some arguments the lawyers for the victims may use:

First, while there were two (2) avenues of exit from the lower level where all passengers were sleeping, it has been reported that the secondary exit, described as an escape hatch, may have been too difficult to reach or access, too small or some other problems, such as objects blocking its use especially in the dark crowded conditions of the lower sleeping area.

Second, it is not clear whether there were any working fire alarms or smoke detectors to wake the passengers when there still may have been time to escape the heat and smoke of this fire.

Third, it is not clear if the required night watch person was actually on duty. If the watch person was on duty, victim’s lawyers will argue this person may have been able to prevent or put out the fire, sound a fire alarm to wake the sleeping passengers and give them some opportunity to escape before the fire (smoke and other toxic substances in this ship that may have burned) spread, reportedly blocking their two exits.

Fourth, the adequacy of any equipment to put out any fires that started has not yet been determined.

Fifth, the adequacy of all safety instructions given to passengers, including whether the passengers were instructed about the secondary exit (called an escape hatch) from the lower sleeping quarters, including how to use same, has not been determined.   In fact, a passenger from several prior voyages has stated that while safety instructions were given to passengers, he was never provided any instructions how to use the escape hatch for the lower sleeping quarters.

Sixth, the actual cause of the fire has not yet been determined. If it was from something the boat owners and crew caused or knew about, such as frayed, faulty or overloaded wiring, such as too many devices being charged overnight at the same time, or something to do with the potentially dangerous oxygen equipment and volatile oxygen used for the divers, this could create liability beyond the law the owners are trying to rely upon.

Seventh, and while this may not be a legal argument to get around the maritime liability limit, it has been stated that a reason for this liability limit was the unavailability of insurance in 1851.  Clearly, this is not a good reason now since such boats 168 years later can acquire insurance since insurance is now more readily available, and it’s our guess the owners of this large passenger dive boat did carry insurance (although if true the amount is not publicly known and while certainly better than zero it’s doubtful if it would be sufficient to cover in full the enormous damages suffered in this horrific tragedy even if it was in the millions, as we would expect) .  This is a public policy argument that could be made to the court and should be made to our federal representatives (that is, to the members our United States Congress and Senate) who are responsible for enacting our maritime laws –to not only repeal this antiquated and ridiculous 1851 law, but also to require such commercial vessels to carry adequate insurance!   In California, owners of motor vehicles are required to carry insurance, so why not require owners of commercial passenger ships to do the same?!

The owners of the Conception dive boat are expected to argue that the boat passed annual Coast Guard inspections.  However, passing inspection and complying with laws, codes and regulations are just evidence of that, it does NOT prove there was no negligence or that the owners, including crew, were not aware of anything on board that might cause this fire to harm those on board at the time of this incident.

There appear to be quite a few facts and issues attorneys representing the families of the deceased victims may use to oppose the petition filed by the owners to limit or eliminate their liability.  In one maritime case we handled in Hawaii resulting in a broken back for our client who resided in California, the owners of the boat claimed benefit of the same law, but we were able to show the owners knew or should have known of the danger to win this case for our client.  This is not a simple matter, there is much at stake and the families of those killed in this horrific tragedy should seek experienced legal counsel to represent their interests and since the boat owners already filed their petition the families should act as soon as possible as there are time limits to file claims and take other legal actions.  We offer our most sincere condolences and an absolutely FREE consultation to the families of those killed in this horrific California wrongful death tragedy.

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