The owners of the dive boat where 34 people perished in a fire off Southern California filed a lawsuit to head off potentially costly litigation, a move condemned by some observers as disrespectful to the families of the dead.
Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned the Conception, filed the action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
The suit was filed under a provision of maritime law implemented in the United States in 1851 that allows it to limit its liability. The time-tested legal maneuver has been successfully employed by owners of the Titanic and countless other crafts—some as small as Jet Skis—and was widely anticipated by maritime law experts.
Families of the deceased, who are not named in the complaint, will be served with a notice that they have limited time to challenge the company’s effort to clear itself of negligence or limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which is a total loss.
In order to prevail, the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have to show they were not at fault in the disaster.
They asserted in the lawsuit 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.”
Even if the captain or crew are found at fault, the Fritzlers and their insurance company could avoid paying a dime under the law, experts said. A judge will hold a non-jury trial to see if the company can successfully show it wasn’t at fault. If that’s the case, any claimants would only be entitled to the value of the remains of the ship, which the suit said is a total loss with zero value.
Some experts expressed surprise that the suit was filed just three days after the Monday fire.
“They’re forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now,” said attorney Charles Naylor, who represents victims in maritime law cases. “They have six months to do this. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking.”
Professor Martin J. Davies, the maritime law director at Tulane University, said the cases always follow accidents at sea and always look bad, but they are usually initiated by insurance companies to limit losses.
“It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that’s what always happens. They’re just protecting their position,” Davies said. “It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one. … The optics are awful.”
Glen Fritzler told KEYT that the filing was recommended to him, his wife, and their daughter Ashley, who run the small company.
“Unfortunately that’s just kind of a normal course of action in maritime law and this is the action that is advised to us, and we need to take,” he said Friday.
“I grew up on these boats. I grew up spending time at the Sea Landing. A lot of the team is family. The crew is our family,” Ashley Fritzler said during the interview. “It’s a really small business, really tight-knit so, this is crushing. Crushing on so many levels that words don’t suffice. And you want to apologize to the families, you want to say all these condolences but it doesn’t suffice right now.”
“Everybody wants answers right now, but they just have to know that we are trying and there’s a lot of people working on this to find out exactly what happened. And so, just be patient with us and with the task force,” Dana Fritzler later added.
All of those who died were in a bunkroom below the main deck. Officials have said the 33 passengers and one crewmember had no ability to escape the flames. Five other crew members escaped the blaze and survived.
Fritzler said that the crew members did not bail on the passengers.
“They did everything in their power to help, but the flames just spread. That’s the investigation. Nobody understands why this fire spread like it did … The investigation has to continue, but you know, we’re all so surprised. We also have to remember this boat’s been in operation since 1981. It’s taken thousands upon thousands of people out over that period of time with no fire incidents whatsoever,” he told Spectrum News.
The way the fire moved so quickly, trapping those inside the bunk area, was surprising, he added. And the crew who survived are wracked with guilt, he said.
“They’re feeling horrible. I’m sure it’s survivor’s guilt. One of our crewmen was lost in this incident as well. They’re a wreck. They’re an emotional wreck,” he told the broadcaster.
“They’re all well-trained. They’re all mariners. They’re all trained, and you know, unfortunately we didn’t have access to any of the firefighting equipment,” he added.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of accidents, regardless if it’s a boat or an airplane, we learn from them and there will be something learned, and it’s a very, very unfortunate event. We’re all sickened by it, and the entire crew and staff is. Words can’t convey.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.