Approximately two months after 34 passengers died on the dive boat Conception, Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, questioned members of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Board. The hearing in Washington, D.C. addressed safety regulations and the steps that can be taken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
During the hearing, Mr. Carbajal, who is a Marine Corps veteran, recognized “the Coast Guard men and women for just doing a heroic job day in and day out on their mission.”
However, the Coast Guard’s implementation of NTSB’s recommendation needs to improve according to Mr. Carbajal.
“The Coast Guard needs to be more prudent, proactive and aggressive in implementing the NTSB recommendations,” Mr. Carbajal told the News-Press.
“When you look at the track record of implementing the NTSB’s recommendations, it is not a good track record,” Mr. Carbajal said during the hearing. “And since, over the years, we’ve seen tragedy after tragedy after tragedy happen, and the Coast Guard has a track record of inaction.”
Mr. Carbajal questioned Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard V. Timme and Louisiana Association for Justice President Paul Sterbcow, ultimately indicating that Mr. Timme did not provide satisfactory answers on some questions.
One of the questions Mr. Carbajal asked Mr. Timme was regarding the safety requirements under which Conception was operating.
“What are some of the safety implications to continue to operate under this framework?” asked Mr. Carbajal.
Mr. Timme’s reply described the framework as “valid standards” under which many vessels are still operating under. The rear admiral went onto say that if the board of investigation finds that the framework had something to do with the Conception tragedy, “We will absolutely look at that.”
As of press time, the Coast Guard had not responded to requests for comment.
Mr. Carbajal and Mr. Sterbcow talked the role accountability plays in improving overall maritime safety.
“Accountability, and it just really, it extends beyond the maritime setting, it’s particularly important in the maritime setting because there is no incentive on the part of vessel owners and operators to ensure that their vessels are safe…” said Mr. Sterbcow. “Accountability breeds attention to detail. Accountability breeds compliance with rules and regulations. The problem is is that at the end of the day if the vessel owner knows regardless of the severity of the catastrophe it can either limit its liability or walk away with no liability then there’s really no incentive at the end of the day to ensure that these vessels are fit fit for their intended purpose.”
Mr. Carbajal then brought up the maritime law that the owners of Conception utilized to file a lawsuit to avoid paying for damages.
“It seems to me that the Limitation of Liability Act is no longer relevant in today’s maritime industry given the advances in technology and changes in the ability of insurance and the corporate structure. It has outlived its purpose,” said Mr. Carbajal. “Would you agree?”
Mr. Sterbcow replied, “I totally agree. It was originally enacted in 1851 when we were a fledgling country trying to compete in maritime commerce with european powers at a time when boats were wooden, cargo was routinely ruined and boats caught fire and sank in a matter of minutes. There was no modern communication. There was no ability of a vessel owner to control his ship once it left port.
“All of those considerations are now gone … The notion that there is an innocent vessel owner who needs to be protected from perils out of his control has long since passed and all the limitation of liability act does now in addition to eliminating accountability is it limits the liability of the marine insurer because none of these boats leave port without insurance. So what you’re really doing is protecting the insurance industry and not the people riding the vessels.”