Dive Boat Owners Seek to Head Off Lawsuits Through Old Maritime Law

In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters work to extinguish a dive boat engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast Monday morning, Sept. 2, 2019. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The owners of a dive boat that sank in a Labor Day fire off the Southern California coast filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to minimize liability for the tragedy.

Truth Aquatics says in a 6-page lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court that it should be exonerated from or face limited liability for any claims arising from the fire which killed 34 people.

On the morning of Sept. 2, the company’s 75-foot boat Conception was packed with scuba divers sleeping below deck after a weekend of activity in the Channel Islands National Park. Around 3:30 a.m., while anchored off Santa Cruz Island, a fire tore through the sleeping quarters – blocking both an escape hatch and a stairway leading outside.

Only 5 crew members were able to escape. Authorities have not determined a cause for the fire, but the Santa Barbara County sheriff said Friday the victims died of smoke inhalation and “the burn damage to victims was post-mortem.”

Represented by Russell Brown of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani in San Diego, the Santa Barbara County, California-based company filed the lawsuit under a pre-Civil War section of maritime law meant to spur the shipping industry by allowing companies to limit their liability in accidents.

Glen Richard Fritzler and Dana Jeanne Fritzler, trustees of the Fritzler Family Trust which owns the boat, say in the lawsuit that they worked diligently to ensure the boat’s seaworthiness, including complying with staffing, supply and equipment standards.

“At all relevant times, plaintiffs 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,” the company says in its lawsuit.

While the owners of the Conception seek exoneration, if the court finds that liability exists “such liability shall in no case exceed the amount of value of plaintiffs’ interest in the Conception, if any, as the same existed immediately following the fire,” the lawsuit states.

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