Deadly Boat Fire: 4 Families of Victims File Suit Against Conception Owners

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In this Sept. 12, 2019, file photo, the burned hull of the dive boat Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island, California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP)
In this Sept. 12, 2019, file photo, the burned hull of the dive boat Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island, California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP)

Four families whose relatives were among the 34 people killed in a fire early Labor Day morning aboard the dive boat Conception are suing the vessel's owners, alleging they failed to have a roving watch required by the Coast Guard, had insufficient fire suppression and detection and inadequate means of escape.

Documents filed in federal court allege the vessel, which was owned by Truth Aquatics, was "unseaworthy" and that captain Jerry Boylan failed to properly implement required watch policies and procedures meant to detect emergencies such as a fire.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that no one was designated as a roving watch at the time the blaze engulfed the Conception off Santa Cruz Island, killing everyone who was sleeping below deck. The captain and four other crew members sleeping above deck managed to escape the blaze.

The filings Monday come after attorneys for Truth Aquatics' owners Glen and Dana Fritzler filed a petition in federal court to limit the payout to the families of the Conception victims. They cited a steamship maritime law, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, in asking a judge to eliminate their financial liability or lower it to an amount equal to the post-fire value of the boat, or $0.

RelatedBefore Conception Boat Fire, Captains Say Coast Guard Safety Rule Was Ignored

But attorneys Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the nation's leading experts on maritime liability, and Brian Panish contend in the newly filed court papers that the conduct of Truth Aquatics means the vessel's owners aren't covered by that law.

The fire is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Coast Guard and FBI that's overseen by the U.S. attorney's office, in addition to probes by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.

The NTSB's preliminary investigation found that the crew members were sleeping in a berth behind the wheelhouse when the fire broke out. By the time they awoke and jumped down to the main deck, they found the galley and salon engulfed in flames. The main bunk room where their 33 customers and a fellow crew member dozed lay directly below, in the belly of the boat. The only way out was through the inferno. No one made that escape.

Mongalazzi said the captain should face charges of seaman's manslaughter and that under the law all that is required is negligence.

A Times investigation found that other captains with Truth Aquatics acknowledged they didn't have formal roving watch schedules even though they were required by Coast Guard regulations. The Conception's certificate of inspection requires a crew member to be designated "as a roving patrol at all times, whether of not the vessel is underway, when the passenger's bunks are occupied."

Glen Fritzler, through his attorney, has declined to comment. In the days after the fire, a statement from an attorney representing Truth Aquatics said a crew member had checked the area where the fire broke out about a half hour earlier and found nothing unusual.

The cause of the deadly fire remains under investigation, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducting extensive testing to assist disaster investigations. It is believed to be the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

Some boat safety experts have pointed to the charging of lithium-ion batteries — which have become a staple for divers who use them to power underwater equipment such as lights, cameras and scooters — as a possible starting point for the blaze.

After the Conception fire, the Coast Guard for the first time recommended that owners of passenger vessels immediately urge crews "to reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords."

The Times reported last month that nearly a year before the Conception fire, there was an incident aboard a second Truth Aquatics vessel in which a lithium-ion battery began to smolder as it was charging. An alarmed crew member quickly tossed it into the water, preventing the fire from spreading, a witness and several sources told The Times.

The fire underscored the potential dangers of such batteries, which have been banned from cargo areas of commercial planes and become the subject of tighter regulations by the U.S. Navy.

Coast Guard inspectors in California didn't know about the previous fire aboard the Vision until The Times requested details about it.

In suits filed Monday, attorneys Mongeluzzi and Panish wrote that Truth Aquatics was aware of the potential dangers of lithium-ion because of the prior fire but failed to warn passengers and crew about the hazard posed by the charge area directly above where passengers slept. The federal court filings say that the lithium-ion batteries charging are the likely cause of the fire and that passengers were encouraged by the dive boat operator to charge all their batteries needed for diving there.

Glen Fritzler believes the batteries were the cause of the Conception disaster.

"I'm telling you the batteries are the issue, and we were never warned," Fritzler said in an emailed statement to The Times. "I have had top-level professional photographers dive with me and they did not understand the dangers."

Until the Conception fire, the Coast Guard had not issued any widespread guidelines regarding their use despite action by aviation authorities and the Navy to restrict their transportation, although in 2016, a Marine Safety Alert warned boaters about a recall of Samsung phones and provided ways to minimize risks from those batteries overheating.

This article is written by Richard Winton, Mark Puente from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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