Santa Cruz Island boat fire

Owners of California diving boat where raging fire killed 34 passengers say they should not be held liable: Report

The owners of the Conception diving boat, which was carrying 34 passengers when a deadly fire erupted early Monday morning, have argued in a court petition that they should not be held financially liable for the deaths.

All but one of the 34 bodies have been recovered from the disaster site off the coast of southern California, near Santa Cruz Island. Five crew members who were awake and above deck escaped, and one crew member was reportedly killed as they were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out.

The Los Angeles Times reports the the owners of Truth Aquatics, Inc., the tour operator that had Conception in its fleet, have asked a judge to essentially eliminate financial liability for the deadly fire. Attorneys for the owners, Glen Fritzler and his wife Dana Fritzler, filed a suit on Thursday citing an 1851 maritime law provision that would allow them to avoid liability. According to the report, the provision states that owners’ liability should be altogether eliminated or limited to the current value of the boat, which was completely destroyed, setting the value at $0.

According to Fox News, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 has been successfully used in maritime law, including by the owners of the Titanic. 

The Los Angeles Times interviewed legal experts who saw the owners’ petition as a savvy pre-emptive maneuver that could limit the ability of relatives to successfully sue for significant damages. Daniel Rose, a  maritime attorney based in New York, called the provision a “distasteful old law” that pre-dated insurance protection, and told the newspaper that victims’ families likely would have had more success if they filed for damages in state court, but the owners may now be able to route any lawsuits to federal court, where a resulting payout would be lower.

“It is certainly a tactic but shipping owners aren’t bluffing; it is the law,” Rose said.

[Feature image: Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP]