Publication / The Washington Post
January 13, 2020
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Lawyers allege California scuba boat fire that killed 34 was result of safety violations, charging station

LOS ANGELES — Owners of a scuba-diving boat that caught fire off California’s Channel Islands last summer, trapping passengers below deck and killing 34 people, failed to follow mandated safety protocols and did not provide adequate charging procedures for electronic equipment, which likely caused the blaze, according to new legal claims on behalf of four of the victims.

Several claims filed in U.S. District Court in California on Monday allege that crew and owner negligence were responsible for the wrongful deaths on board the Conception, a well-known and popular vessel that had ferried generations of divers and sightseers to coastal spots off Santa Barbara since the early 1980s. The Sept. 2 overnight fire in the galley area killed everyone who was sleeping below deck during the Labor Day weekend trip — the only survivors were the captain and four crew members who had been in a sleeping area above.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing the victims, said an initial investigation by authorities showed several lapses on the boat that allowed the catastrophe to happen: Passengers and a crew member in the sleeping compartment were unable to escape, the crew wasn’t prepared for such a fire, and the boat did not have proper charging capabilities for the technology on board.

“There was no night watch, there wasn’t adequate training, the location of the charging stations in a level above the sleeping berth with multiple electronic devices with ion batteries was a death trap,” Mongeluzzi told The Washington Post.

The fire — one of the deadliest maritime accidents in modern history — happened after a night of celebrating three birthdays. Thirty-three passengers and one crew member retired to the tightly packed bunks below deck in the early morning hours of the last day of the voyage.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary report found that all six members of the crew were asleep at 3:15 a.m. when the fire broke out in the galley. Government regulations mandate that commercial ships must maintain a roving watch with someone awake aboard at all times.

Lawyers for the four victims argue that the Conception’s operators routinely failed to abide by that law and that if they had, passengers sleeping below deck might have been alerted before they became trapped in a fire that ultimately burned the ship down to its hull.

“First, federal law requires that there be a night watch to prevent the very tragedy that occurred,” Mongeluzzi said. “We believe that we’re going to be able to prove that there was no night watch, not on this voyage and not on other voyages, and that their crew was not trained.”

The Conception had two exit routes from the sleeping area, one up the main staircase into the galley and another through a small hatch above a top bunk. The fire that began in the galley was fully underway when crew members noticed it, and they were unable to get into the sleeping area to attempt a rescue.

Douglas Schwartz, a lawyer for the Conception’s owner, Truth Aquatics Inc., denied the NTSB report’s findings, calling the preliminary insight “unfortunate.” He has said that staff had checked on the galley at 2:30 a.m. Truth Aquatics did not respond to a request for comment on the claims Monday.

Federal agencies have yet to release an official cause of the accident, but lawyers representing the victims said the fire probably began as a result of the lithium batteries for portable devices that were being charged in the boat’s galley.

Scuba divers on live-aboard boats often charge devices that include portable lights, camera equipment, laptop batteries and cellphones. The Conception — a boat built in 1981, before personal devices were status quo — allowed equipment to be charged via a power strip located inside a bench in the galley above the sleeping quarters, according to crew member accounts.

Mongeluzzi said the storage and use of lithium batteries was “the most likely culprit” as the source of the fire.

The claim filed Monday is on behalf of three passengers — Yulia Krashennaya, 40, Kaustubh Nirmal, 44, Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31 — and the crew member who died in the blaze, Allie Kurtz, 26. Lawyers aruge that the boat was unseaworthy and that the owner and operators were aware of the risks.

The victims’ lawyers also aim to encourage a case of criminal ineptitude against the ship’s captain, Jerry Boylan, using a statute known as seaman’s manslaughter. It dates back to the 19th century as a means to punish negligent steamboat captains for deadly accidents. Such a charge must be brought against Boylan by the federal government, which has yet to file any formal actions.

Boylan has a sterling reputation among the local diving community in Santa Barbara, where Truth Aquatics has been based for 45 years. Boylan did not respond to requests for comment.

Monday’s filings directly respond to an earlier legal action taken by the Conception’s owners in the immediate aftermath of the deadly incident. Truth Aquatics on Sept. 5 filed a claim for an exemption from liability, invoking a pre-Civil War maritime law that most notably was used in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and more recently the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Under the law, liability damages to victims would be equivalent to the current market value of the Conception’s burned out hull: $0.

In the filing, the boat’s owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, argued that they “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy,” and that the boat was “at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned.”

Mongeluzzi said the timing of the company’s filing, not long after the fire and before any results of the investigations had been released, was particularly alarming to the victims.

“The defendants filed a limitation of liability action 72 hours after this tragedy, before many of the bodies had even been recovered, and before funerals even occurred,” Mongeluzzi said. “I thought it was outrageous, and inhumane, and a slap in the face at these grieving families.”

The new legal actions join two others already filed separately by victims and their families. Ryan Sims, who was a steward on the boat for just three weeks at the time of the accident and broke his leg while escaping, sued in September arguing the company had failed to properly train employees. Christine Dignam, whose husband Justin, 58, died on the ship, sued in November for wrongful death.

The Conception’s deadly fire has opened up a broader dialogue about maritime safety regulations for passenger ships, one that could significantly impact the diving industry.

In December, Democratic California lawmakers — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Reps. Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley — introduced a bill focused on boat safety that would in part mandate that all small passenger vessels have at least two modes of egress.

“The Conception boat fire was a tragedy that could have been prevented if stronger safety measures were in place,” Feinstein tweeted.

Mongeluzzi said his clients are seeking more than damages: They want answers that could potentially lead to more stringent regulations.

“Certainly the message goes to these defendants specifically, but to the industry generally: The issue of egress for vessels is something that’s of critical importance,” Mongeluzzi said. “I think that if this lawsuit were to save one life, they will feel like their loved ones didn’t die in vain.”