Owners of sunken boat file suit under 19th Century maritime law

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

The owners of the boat that burned off the coast of Santa Barbara County this week, killing 34 people, filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday making use of a 19th century maritime law in attempt to limit their liability in the aftermath of the disaster. [ABC News]

Truth Aquatics Inc. owns the Conception, which caught fire early Monday morning off of Santa Cruz Island and ended up on the ocean floor. The company’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Families of the deceased passengers will be served with a notice informing them 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 said to be a total loss. The suit does not name the victims of the boat fire.

Company owners Glen and Dana Fritzler need to show they were not at fault in the disaster in order to prevail in their suit. The Fritzlers and their insurance company may avoid having to pay out any money even if the captain and crew were found at fault.

In addition to seeking to protect the boat owners from legal exposure, the complaint aims to require that any future lawsuits be filed in the same federal court. 

A judge will hold a non-jury trial to determine if Truth Aquatics can prove it was not at fault. If the owners can prove they were not at fault, the victims’ families will only be entitled to the value of the remains of the ship.

In the past, the legal maneuver was used successfully by owners of the Titanic and many other watercraft, some as small as jet skis. Truth Aquatics’ legal move was widely expected by maritime law experts, but the timing of the suit — just three days after the deadly fire — came as a surprise to legal observers.

The federal maritime law dates to 1851 but has its origins in 18th Century England. The law was designed to encourage the shipping business Every country with a shipping industry has a similar statute, Professor Martin J. Davies said.

“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.”

Attorney Charles Naylor, who represents victims in maritime law cases, said the suit did not need to be filed immediately. 

“They’re forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now,” Naylor said. “They have six months to do this. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking.”

All of the passengers who died were in a bunk room below the main deck. Officials say the 33 passengers and the one crew member who died had no possibility to escape.

Crew members told investigators they made several attempts to rescue the people who were trapped before they fled the ship. 

The lawsuit states the owners used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy and was fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied. 

Attorney James Mercante said, while the law can shield owners from damages, more than 90 percent of cases where injury and death are involved are settled before trial.

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