A preliminary investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reportedly shows that serious safety deficiencies may have caused or contributed to the Conception boat fire.
The fire, which killed 34 people, was the worst maritime disaster in California history. The passengers on the Conception had signed up for a multi-day scuba diving excursion and became trapped under the flames while sleeping below deck.
The investigation concluded that the Conception lacked a key safety measure: A “roaming night watchman.” The night watchman is typically required to walk the ship and alert passengers and crew if a fire or any other threat develops. The investigation also raised questions about whether the crew was properly trained and whether the passengers were given an adequate safety briefing, according to the Los Angeles Times.
While no criminal charges have been issued, officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been on scene and have been coordinating with the investigation. According to The Times, a federal law known as “Seaman’s Manslaughter” was invoked to issue criminal charges against a Missouri duck boat captain involved in a high-profile sinking that cost 17 lives in 2018. The captain of that boat was charged with recklessly failing to assess the weather, steer the vehicle and advise passengers on proper procedures for abandoning ship.
The U.S. Coast Guard also oversaw the investigation that resulted in those charges. Another agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is also investigating the Conception tragedy,
Jennifer Homendy, who is leading that investigation, told The Times that surviving crew members said the fire was burning too hot to save any passengers.
“What’s emerging from the interviews is a harrowing story of the last few minutes before the boat was engulfed in flames,” she said. “They felt that they had done what they could do in a very panicked situation.”
Boat Owner Files Petition to Limit Liability
As the investigation into the fire continues, the owners of the Conception are citing a 19th century maritime law to argue that they should not be held financially liable for the incident.
The attorneys for Glen and Dana Fritzler, owners of Truth Aquatics, filed a court petition on Sept. 5 asking a judge to rule out the possibility of having to pay the families of victims compensation for their losses.
The law in question, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, has been used repeatedly over the years to limit payouts to victims. The Titanic, the Deepwater Horizon and 2018’s duck boat tragedy are all examples of disaster where the law was invoked.
By filing the petition, the owners of the boat preclude state-level litigation against them, as all claims will not be routed to federal court. According to The Times, this maneuver represents a significant victory for the boat owners and their insurance company — despite timing that may seem quite callous to most observers.
Finding the Right Attorney
If you (or someone you love) has been injured through the negligence of another party, it’s imperative that you seek immediate legal action. By moving quickly, you can help ensure that you aren’t outmaneuvered by negligent parties and their insurance companies.