Four families of the victims of the Conception boat tragedy have filed a lawsuit against the owner of the dive boat that caught fire on Labor Day and killed 34 on board.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of the families of: Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31; Kaustbh Nirmal, 33; Yulia Krashennaya, 40; and Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz, 26. Attorneys Robert Glassman of L.A.-based law firm Panish, Shea, & Boyle and Robert Mongeluzzi and Jeffrey Goodman, maritime lawyers from Philadephia-based Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, announced the claims in a joint press conference. The attorneys said the filings are “the most comprehensive to date and assert that the massive inferno – likely caused by an unsafe lithium-ion-battery charging station – was foreseeable and preventable in part due to the failing to have a mandatory overnight safety watch.”
The claims allege the boat fire was started in or near the galley, which is where the lithium-ion battery charging stations would have been located.
Though the attorneys have not been able to look at any evidence of the boat fire because the vessel is in possession of the National Transportation and Safety Board, there is “circumstantial evidence that points to the cause of the fire” being the charging stations, Mr. Mongeluzzi said.
The attorneys also pointed to news reports and information they’ve seen regarding a fire aboard Vision, a similar vessel to Conception, that occurred last year. The fire reportedly involved an overcharged cell phone and the device was thrown overboard, Mr. Goodman said.
A fire that causes at least $75,000 in damage must be reported to the Coast Guard, though because the phone did not cost that much the blaze went unreported, he said.
Three days after the blaze broke out, attorneys for Truth Aquatics, owner Glen Fritzler and his wife Dana, filed a petition in federal court seeking to fend off any civil actions. The petition cited an 1851 maritime law that could limit the owners’ liability.
The lawsuit announced Monday was filed in response to the petition.
“The defendants killed these victims by breaking the law and failing to have a roving night watch whose job was to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred. Rather than mourn those whose lives they took with their failure to obey the law, they lawyered up and mercilessly filed an action to limit their liability before many of the bodies of these victims were even recovered. We will demolish their frivolous limitation of liability claim and hold them accountable for the outrageous harm they have caused,” said Mr. Mongeluzzi.
Mr. Goodman argued that vessel owners and operators need to take better safety precautions to ensure a fire doesn’t start in the first place.
“Given the lax safety policies and safety enforcement at Truth Aquatics, it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck. We fully expect this litigation will put Truth Aquatics out of business and send a message to the maritime industry that safety must always come before profits,” he said.
The claims also allege the vessel was equipped with non-compliant escape hatches in the event of an emergency and a “litany of safety lapses.”
Federal law required Conception to have two means of egress for the bunks below deck. Both led to the galley, according to the attorneys, including one hatch which was above a bunk.
“It is a ridiculous avenue of possible escape,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said.
The attorneys said they have spoken with prior captains of the Conception and others who have ventured on the boat. Their statements show a pattern of the vessel not having a required roving patrol, Mr. Mongeluzzi said.
“This has become more important over the last decade as electronic devices on ships have proliferated, much like on planes,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said.
Other similar claims have already been filed. The widow of a passenger and a crew member who broke his leg getting to safety have filed claims challenging the liability petition.
Russell Brown, attorney for Truth Aquatics, did not comment on the new litigation when reached Monday. Mr. Brown, a lawyer with the Gordon & Rees firm, said he had not received the filling nor has he read them.
“The family members, who are still grieving and in shock, want to express their deepest gratitude to all of the first responders for their efforts, to the people in and around Santa Barbara, and to the well-wishers from around the world whose support is a source of strength,” Mr. Glassman said. “Above all, the families of the victims, and those that represent them, want to make sure that what happened to their loved ones on the Conception can never happen again.”