The owners of the Conception dive boat, which caught fire killing 34 passengers over Labor Day weekend, have filed a federal lawsuit to exonerate or limit their liability.
According to court documents filed Thursday, Truth Aquatics Inc. and its owners, Glen Richard Fritzler and Dana Jeanne Fritzler, claim the case falls within admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the Limitation of Liability Act, which exonerates them from any alleged loss or damages for personal injuries or property loss.
They filed their lawsuit U.S. Central District Court in Calfironia.
If successful, the lawsuit would force any parties suing for damages on behalf of the victims’ families to file their lawsuit in the Central District.
The complaint also asks for any lawsuits that have already been filed in other courts to be suspended, but there do not appear to be any.
Finally, the plaintiffs asked the court to formally exonerate them from liability. They argued if the court finds the plaintiffs liable for damages caused by the fire, that liability should not exceed the amount of value of the plaintiffs’ interest in the Conception immediately following the fire. Plaintiff’s say the Conception has zero residual value.
According to the United States House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel, the Limitation of Liability Act was enacted on Mar. 3, 1851. It applies to vessels used at sea and in lakes or rivers.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case Farrell Lines Inc. v. Jones lays out the burden of proof for establishing whether shipowners are entitled to limit their liability.
The court must determine what “ acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident,” then determine whether the plaintiff had “knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.”
While the act does not define privity or knowledge, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals case Hercules Carriers Inc. v. Claimant State of Florida Department of Transportation observed “privity and knowledge is established where the means of obtaining knowledge exist, or where reasonable inspection would have led to the requisite knowledge.” The Hercules court explained that knowledge is not limited to what the shipowner actually knows. It also includes “what he is charged with discovering in order to apprise himself of conditions likely to produce or contribute to a loss.”
However, potential claimants must prove that some act or condition of the vessel caused the damage. If they cannot meet that initial burden, the shipowner may be exonerated.
Federal courts may also decline to exercise jurisdiction over a limitation case where the limitation fund is inadequate to pay damages to potential claimants.
The limitation fund is a sum deposited by the shipowner, usually equal to the value of the remaining interest in the vessel at issue, that is used to pay successful claimants. In some cases the fund may be calculated based on the tonnage of the vessel.
Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the San Diego branch of the law firm Gordon & Rees. Russell Brown, an attorney assigned to the case, did not respond to a request for comment.