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California dive boat owner asks judge to limit payouts to victims’ families

A drone photo shows the 75-foot Conception on May 3.
A drone photo shows the 75-foot Conception on May 3.
(From Don Barthelmess)

The owners of the California diving boat that burned during a Labor Day weekend charter near Santa Barbara, killing 34 people aboard, have turned to a 19th century maritime law to argue they should not have to pay any money to the families of victims.

In their petition filed Thursday, attorneys for the owners Truth Aquatics Inc., Glen Fritzler and his wife, Dana, cite an 1851 statute 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.

The Conception ignited early on Sept. 2, burned for hours and sank near the Channel Islands. It is now worthless, according to the Fritzlers’ federal court filing in the Central District of California.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Russell Brown, an attorney representing Truth Aquatics and the Fritzlers, declined comment.

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The legal motion comes as diving teams are still looking for the 34th body and investigators are interviewing surviving crew members about the deadly voyage.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia-based maritime attorney who often represents families of people who died in duck boat incidents, said the petition by Conception’s owners was a predictable, if callous tactic for a vessel operator facing crippling legal payouts.

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.

“It is pretty heartless when not all the bodies have been recovered to file something saying their lives are worthless,” Mongeluzzi said.

In a statement posted Friday morning on the Truth Aquatics’ Instagram page, the company said the legal step was “another unfortunate side of these tragedies.""When something like this happens, insurance companies and numerous stakeholders convene and activate a legal checklist. The timing is on them. Our hearts and minds are on the tragedy and finding answers.”

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None of the victims’ relatives have sued the Fritzlers or Truth Aquatics, but in court filings, the owners say they’ve received notice for legal claims.

Law firms are also reaching out to victims’ families. At a makeshift memorial this week in Santa Barbara harbor, an administrator at a personal injury law firm approached Steve Quitasol, the brother of a man who died in the fire with his three daughters and their stepmother. Laura Rosales told Quitasol that three families of victims had retained the law firm, and she urged him to meet with her.

“It’s not about saying that the staff or crew was wrong, it’s about [safety] protocols,” Rosales told him at the memorial. “It’s about the insurance company that insured the Conception.”

Legal experts said the owners of the Conception effectively won their first victory in the post-fire litigation by filing the petition before victims initiated court actions.

Daniel Rose, a veteran New York-based maritime attorney, said if victims had filed lawsuits first in state courts, they could be eligible for significant damages. By filing the petition, Conception owners could be able to direct any future lawsuit to federal court and prevent substantial payouts.

“It brings all the claims into one court,” added Michael Karcher, a professor of maritime law at the University of Miami. He emphasized that the petition still faced hurdles and that it was not absolute.

To win, the Fritzlers will have to show in court that their company was not to blame for the inferno. Lawyers for the victims’ families will presumably challenge the effort but will be required to show that the owners knew or should have known of the risk of harm.

The law, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, has been used routinely by ship operators, including the owner of the Titanic. In recent years, it has been invoked by the owners in the Deep Water Horizon oil rig disaster, the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship in 2015 and duck boat deaths such as the 2018 sinking in Missouri that killed 17.

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Rose called it a “distasteful old law” that traces to the days when the shipping industry could not obtain insurance. Now, it is those insurers — not the boat owner or operator — who push for such a strategy, since they may bankroll the defense.

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


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