Carbajal, Feinstein introduce legislation to help Conception Boat fire victims’ families and others
In response to the Conception boat fire that claimed the lives of 34 individuals in 2019, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, introduced the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act on Wednesday.
The legislation would reform longstanding maritime liability law.
The new bill aims to update an 1851 liability law that prevents victims and families involved in maritime accidents to receive compensation from small passenger vessel owners who are responsible for the incident.
The legislation comes more than two years after the Conception boat fire, which killed 34 individuals near Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. Since the incident, several lawsuits have been filed by the victim’s families and a crew member, and the captain of the ship, Jerry Boylan, was indicted for seaman’s manslaughter.
Under the existing Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, the owner of the Conception vessel may not be held financially liable for any losses incurred in the tragedy because the boat had no value after it burned, according to a news release.
The new bill introduced by Rep. Carbajal and Sen. Feinstein would require that owners of small passenger vessels be held legally responsible for losses and be required to provide compensation in the aftermath of maritime incidents. The law would apply retroactively to the Conception victims’ families, meaning they would be eligible to receive compensation if this law is passed.
“This (1851) law is antiquated, and it’s unfair when you consider laws that have been put in place over the decades in contemporary times,” Rep. Carbajal told the News-Press Wednesday. He said the Conception boat fire shed light on the need to modernize the longstanding liability act to ensure families were properly compensated for losses.
“What we’re trying to do is make this law appropriate and right and contemporary, and make sure families with other liability insurance get the fair and just compensation that they deserve when you have an incident like this tragedy that occurred Sept. 2, 2019,” the congressman added.
This new piece of legislation builds upon the existing Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which became law in 2021. That bill focused on improving safety features in small vessels to prevent future incidents in the aftermath of the Conception boat fire. It was included in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act that passed in January.
Rep. Carbajal said both these bills aim to “make it right retroactively” for the families of the Conception boat victims who have yet to receive compensation for the loss.
“While we obviously can’t undo the tragedy and disaster that happened, I think this (bill) helps right things,” Rep. Carbajal said. “It allows us to retroactively help those families get the compensation that they deserve for their lost loved ones and the victims of this disaster and make it right for them.”
The bill was introduced in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House Wednesday and will be heard first in the Maritime Transportation and Coast Guard subcommittee, which Rep. Carbajal chairs. The companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Feinstein.
“The families of those who perished in the tragic Conception boat fire have filed claims against the owners of the boat for violating federal safety rules, but they may not receive any compensation because of a 170-year-old law that doesn’t account for modern tourism such as commercial dive boats,” Sen. Feinstein said in a statement. “Our bill would fix this egregious oversight and allow the families to receive recompense from the boat’s owner.”