Families contend Coast Guard responsible after years of certifying boat
The families of the 34 people who perished in the Conception boat fire in 2019 filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard this week, alleging that the agency allowed the ship to sail despite “blatant life-safety violations.”
The suit, which was filed Wednesday in federal court in Los Angeles, claims that the Coast Guard should be held accountable for the Conception incident after years of repeatedly certifying the ship even when there were numerous violations of the agency’s own regulations and procedures.
Thursday marked two years since the Conception vessel, which was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, caught fire near Santa Cruz Island, killing 33 passengers and one crew member who were trapped in the ship’s sleeping deck. Each of the passengers died of smoke inhalation, according to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau.
After an investigation, the National Transporation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact cause of the fire, but cited failure to comply with Coast Guard regulations on the part of Capt. Jerry Boylan and Truth Aquatics as likely reasons for the blaze, among other safety violations. Mr. Boylan, who fled the burning ship on an inflatable skiff, has been indicted on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter.
Wednesday’s wrongful death suit, however, says the Coast Guard itself should be held responsible for violating its own standards and certifying the “fire trap” that had a “non-compliant, overloaded electric system” that contributed to the fire.
The suit outlines multiple “enforcement lapses” in the Coast Guard’s certification, including that the ship’s electric and wiring system did not comply with regulatory standards. The suit alleges that the ship’s faulty electric system was stressed by a nitrox generation system that generated air for scuba tanks — so much so that the ship’s galley stove and nitrox system could not be operated at the same time.
The lawsuit also states that the Coast Guard did know or should have known that Truth Aquatics added “undocumented and ill-designed” outlets throughout the vessel and allowed customers to charge digital cameras, smartphones, cell phones, tablets and other lithium battery equipment, despite the strained electrical system.
The suit explains that lithium batteries are known to cause increased fire risks, and alleges that a “lithium-fueled” fire broke out on the ship that “had been sparked and/or critically accelerated by defective equipment which was plugged into an overburdened shipboard electrical system.”
“This overburdened shipboard electrical system had been designed, developed, built, installed, and refurbished without adequate fire detection, without adequate fire protection and/or without adequate electrical systems and wiring by (Richard and Dana) Fritzler, Truth Aquatics, and others, and inspected and approved by the Coast Guard,” the lawsuit said. “Nevertheless, at all times material, the Coast Guard failed to perform adequate inspections, allowing Conception to sail with these hazardous and ultimately deadly conditions.”
In addition to these complaints, the lawsuit also said that the ship had a “non-compliant fire detection and suppression system” and lacked passenger escape routes that met Coast Guard standards.
Speaking on behalf of the legal team in the suit, Jeffrey P. Goodman, a partner at Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky P.C., said in addition to the Coast Guard’s role in critical safety missions, it is also responsible for “ensuring that only properly certified vessels are on the water.” Mr. Goodman said that the Coast Guard has failed this aspect of its mission for decades, allowing non-compliant vessels to sail and threaten the lives of passengers.
“Had the Coast Guard properly inspected Conception, it never would have been certified, never set sail, and these 34 victims would not have lost their lives,” Mr. Goodman said in a statement.
“Sadly, certifying non-compliant vessels is commonplace at the Coast Guard. The time has come for the Coast Guard to be held accountable for its failures to protect those victims and prevent future maritime disasters on America’s waterways,” he added.
The Coast Guard could not be immediately reached for comment regarding the lawsuit.
A few of the families filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Truth Aquatics in January 2020.