Safety and oversight failures by the owners of a California dive boat and its captain resulted in one of the deadliest maritime accidents in recent U.S. history, with 34 people trapped below deck perishing in the flames, federal investigators concluded.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) members didn’t hold back in criticizing the owners of the Conception, a Santa Barbara-based scuba diving boat that caught fire on Labor Day last year and sank. The horrific fire killed 33 passengers and one crew member.

“No accident”

“I hate the term accident in this case because, in my opinion, it is not an accident if you fail to operate your company safely,” Board member Jennifer Homendy said in a meeting about the disaster held on Tuesday, Oct. 20, as reported by the Associated Press.

Most of the NTSB’s criticism fell on Jerry Boylan, the dive boat’s captain, for his failure to post a roving watchman as required by federal law and for failing to train crew members on emergency procedures. Investigators also faulted the U.S. Coast Guard for its dismal record in enforcing the roving watchman requirement and other critical safety lapses.

According to the Associated Press, Tuesday’s meeting brought up chilling revelations that investigators recovered some bodies from the sunken vessel, some of whom were wearing shoes. Because the fire broke out below deck around 3 a.m. when passengers and crew would have been asleep, finding victims with shoes on led investigators to believe that the victims were awake and trying to escape the flames.

To exit the lower deck, the people would have had to climb onto a bunk and pull themselves up through the boat’s only escape hatch – an opening of just 22 inches by 22 inches. The feat likely proved impossible as blinding, choking smoke filled the bunkroom. Coroner reports list smoke inhalation as the cause of death for all the victims.

Deadly safety lapses

Federal prosecutors say that criminal charges against Mr. Boylan are imminent. According to the Associated Press, analysts say prosecutors are “likely trying to apply an obscure federal law known as the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute that predates the Civil War and was enacted to punish negligent captains, engineers and pilots for deadly steamboat accidents that killed thousands.”

The NTSB also blasted the U.S Coast Guard for its inadequate safety rules despite past recommendations and for its failure to enforce existing safety rules.

The lack of common-sense safety rules, such as requiring interconnected smoke detectors in all vessel accommodations and poor emergency escape requirements, also contributed to the disaster, investigators found.

According to the NTSB, Coast Guard records also show that no boat owner, operator or charterer has been issued a citation or fine for failure to post a roving patrol in nearly three decades.

Investigators weren’t able to determine exactly how the fire started, but they do know that the blaze started in an area of the boat where divers charged their phones, cameras, flashlights, and other gear powered by highly combustible lithium-ion batteries.

The NTSB, which investigates most major transportation accidents, lacks the authority to make regulatory changes. It can only make recommendations for safety improvements to regulating agencies. Most of the NTSB’s recommendations are routinely rejected by regulating bodies.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it will have experts and senior leaders review the NTSB’s recommendations before it considers making any regulatory changes.

Five crew members, including Captain Boylan, were asleep above the bunkroom when the fire broke out. They made repeated attempts to save the passengers and crew member trapped below but ultimately had to jump ship as the flames completely engulfed the vessel.

Family members of 32 of the victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the dive boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and their company Truth Aquatics. The couple is seeking immunity from those claims under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

Maritime Law

It’s not unusual for companies to seek protection under the Limitation of Liability Act. The Associated Press 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.

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. For more information on this area of law, contact Kendall Dunson in our Personal Injury Section.

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