Three days after a fire broke out aboard a Southern California diving boat, trapping and killing 34 people, the boat’s owners filed a lawsuit seeking protection under a pre-Civil War provision of U.S. maritime law that could limit their liability for the accident.

Truth Aquatics Inc. of Santa Barbara and its owners Glen and Dana Fritzler filed the suit Thursday, Sept. 5, in a federal court in Los Angeles.

By invoking the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, Truth Aquatics could potentially shield itself from lawsuits that families of those who died aboard the 75-foot diving boat will likely file. The law limits financial liability in maritime disasters to the value of the sunken boat after the incident and any cargo that was on board.

The diving boat, named the Conception, lies upside-down off the coast of San Miguel island in 65 feet of water. The vessel sunk after being gutted by fire and is considered a total loss with zero value.

While it’s not uncommon for ship owners to seek legal protection under the old law, the haste in which the Truth Aquatics filed has been criticized as brazenly disrespectful by some observers.

The maritime law also limits the time frame in which plaintiffs can bring their personal injury and wrongful death complaints.

A maritime law professor at Tulane University told the Associated Press that legal maneuvers such as this are usually initiated by the defendant’s insurer to limit the financial blow they face.

Another lawyer who handles maritime cases noted the terrible timing of the lawsuit. “They’re forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now,” he told the AP. “They have six months to do this. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking.”

The Conception caught fire in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 2 as it was mooring in the Channel Islands. All of the boat’s passengers were asleep below deck when the fire broke out, making escaping the inferno impossible. The blaze killed 33 passengers and one crew member.

Five crew members who were on the upper deck of the diving boat were able to jump off and make their way to a neighboring boat. They told investigators that they made several attempts to reach those below deck but the flames made a rescue impossible.

According to the AP, families of the deceased will be served a notice that they have a limited time to challenge the lawsuit attempting to clear Truth Aquatics of negligence or limit its liability.

The company and its owners will have to demonstrate they were not at fault for the fire. They claim in their lawsuit that they “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged.”

It’s not unusual for companies to seek protection under the Limitation of Liability Act. The AP notes that White Star Lines, the owner of the Titanic, asserted its protection under that law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court found that foreign companies could seek protection under the U.S. law, ultimately prompting plaintiffs to withdraw their U.S. suit and file it in England, where a similar law limits damages but provides for bigger payouts.

Last November, the owners of an amphibious “Ride the Ducks” boat that sank in Branson, Missouri, killing 17 passengers, filed a similar claim. They say that the old maritime law limits their liability for the accident to $0 because the boat, which sank to the bottom of the lake, is now worthless and had no freight.

Certain parties responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill also sought protection under the 170-year-old law. Transocean, the company that leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to BP, argued that the sunken rig, which under the law is considered a seagoing vessel, was worth just the $26.7 million in unpaid drilling fees earned before the explosion.

At Beasley Allen, our lawyers provide decades of experience in maritime law and helping those whose lives have been impacted by boating and shipping accidents.

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