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California boat fire: Crew member says Conception was unsafe in suit against owners

The burned hulk of the Conception is lifted from the sea. A massive fire killed 34 people aboard on Labor Day.
The burned hulk of the Conception at the Seabee Base in Port Hueneme.
(KABC-TV)

Less than two weeks after the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, a crew member who survived the inferno that gutted the Conception and killed 34 people aboard has sued the dive boat’s owners.

Ryan Sims, who had been a steward on the boat for just three weeks, alleges in a lawsuit filed Sept. 12 that the Conception’s owners were negligent in their failure to properly train crew members, give adequate safety and medical equipment and provide safety rules, among other claims.

According to the lawsuit, Sims was awakened by loud noises and realized a fire had broken out on the boat and was spreading fast. In an effort to escape the fire, Sims jumped from the top deck, breaking his leg in three places and injuring his back and neck, the lawsuit said.

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The lawsuit lists Truth Aquatics Inc., Worldwide Diving Adventures and the Conception’s owner, Glen Fritzler, as defendants, according to records from Ventura County Superior Court. Sims is seeking punitive damages as well as attorney fees and medical costs from his injuries.

“He’s just trying to get stable at this point,” said Sims’ attorney, Kurt Arnold. “As you can imagine, it’s quite a traumatic event.”

The suit signals the beginning of a potentially long legal battle for the owners of Conception, who have already taken steps to protect themselves from liability.

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Less than a week after the inferno, attorneys for Fritzler and his wife, Dana, filed a petition citing the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, 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 body of the 34th victim had not yet been recovered when the Fritzlers filed their motion.

In a now-deleted statement posted 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.”

Normally, victims of maritime tragedies have three years to file claims, but because of the Fritzlers’ motion, the surviving crew members and victims’ family have just a matter of months, said Arnold, whose firm represented victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

The motion presents an additional legal hurdle, requiring Sims and any other victims who file claims to prove the owners knew about any problems that led to the tragedy. It is a process that can take up to two years, Arnold said.

Arnold called the move an “offensive weapon to slow families’ recovery.”

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“This is typical,” Arnold said. “They say they’re sorry... but behind their back they’re filing a limitation action. They didn’t have to, but they chose to.”

Sims was one of five crew members asleep on the deck of the Conception at the time. According to a preliminary NTSB report, one crew member was awakened by a noise and saw fire rising from the salon compartment below.

He alerted the other crew members, and they attempted to reach the passengers sleeping in the bunkroom below deck. They were unable to use a ladder, which was on fire, so they jumped down to the main deck. Sims broke his leg in the process.

Unable to reach the lower part of the boat that was engulfed in flames, the crew jumped overboard. The survivors made their way to a nearby vessel, the Grape Escape, to call for help. After raising the alarm, some of the crew returned to the Conception to look for survivors, but none was found.

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.

Video of the moments after the crew’s rescue shows a man, presumed to be Sims, screaming in agony as paramedics move his leg.

Russell Brown, an attorney representing Truth Aquatics, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Legal experts have said owners of boats in which people are hurt or killed succeed about half the time in winning court rulings.

Tulane University maritime law professor Martin J. Davies said the 1851 law could shield Conception’s owners from significant damages. The result would depend on whether the Fritzlers can prove they had no knowledge of the problem that caused the disaster.

Last week, officials raised the remains of the Conception from the seafloor. The NTSB is continuing its investigation into what caused the fire.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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