The owners of the boat in the California fire that killed 34 employ 'heartless' legal strategy that could limit payouts to $0

california boat fire glen fritzlerA composite image of Glen Fritzer, the owner of the company that owns the Conception boat that caught fire on September 2, 2019, and the Conception on fire.KEYT; Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Reuters

  • The Conception diving boat caught on fire off the Southern California coast early Monday morning.
  • 34 out of the 39 people who were on board are believed to be dead.
  • The owners of the boat on Thursday filed a lawsuit attempting to avoid payouts to the victims' families, and to restrict its liability to the value of the boat's remains, which is at zero.
  • Legal experts are calling the move, which is common in maritime disasters, "pretty heartless."
  • You can read the lawsuit below.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The owners of the boat that caught fire in Southern California and killed 34 people are attempting to use a common maritime legal strategy to prevent them from having to pay any damages to families of those who died, a move some experts are calling "heartless."

Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned the Conception diving boat, filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming that it was not liable for any damages from the victims' families because the vessel was seaworthy when it caught fire.

"At all relevant times, Plaintiffs 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," the complaint, filed to the US District Court in Los Angeles on behalf of Truth Aquatics and its owners Glen and Dana Fritzler, said.

Read more: 33 bodies have been found and one remains missing after a boat fire off the coast of California

The Fritzlers are trying to limit their liability to victims to the value of the boat's remains, which is zero. The Conception's wreckage currently remains on the seabed off the California coast.

The law being used, the Limitation of Liability Act, dates back to 1851 and has been invoked in past high profile maritime disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Victims' families will be told that they have six months to challenge Truth Aquatics' legal attempts to clear itself of any negligence, or to limit the liability to the current value of the boat, which is zero, the lawsuit said.

None of the victims' families have yet filed lawsuits against the owners, but crew members have submitted written notice that they may file for legal claims in the future, the document said.

california boat fireA firefighter responds to the Conception's boat fire off Santa Cruz Island, California, on September 2, 2019.Ventura County Fire Department/Handout via Reuters

'They could let these people bury their kids'

Charles Naylor, a lawyer who represents victims in other maritime cases, told the Associated Press (AP): "They're forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now ... They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking."

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a maritime lawyer in Philadelphia, also told the Los Angeles Times: "It is pretty heartless when not all the bodies have been recovered to file something saying their lives are worthless."

Martin J. Davies, the maritime law director at Tulane University, said that invoking the Limitation of Liability Act is a common strategy after maritime disasters, but acknowledged that it often "produces very unpleasant results."

"It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that's what always happens. They're just protecting their position," Davies told the AP.

"It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one. ... The optics are awful."

Read more: A family of 5 on a birthday trip, a father-daughter duo who loved diving, and a marine biologist leading the scuba expedition are believed to be among the 34 California boat fire victims

california boat fire memorial hugJJ Lambert and Jenna Marsala hug after at a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics' offices in Santa Barbara, California, on September 2, 2019.Kyle Grillot/Reuters

The crew tried to save the passengers, but were blocked by the fire

The Conception caught fire off Santa Cruz Island, California early Monday morning. Of the 33 passengers and six crew members on board the ship, only five - the captain and four crew members - are believed to have survived.

The US Coast Guard suspended its search and rescue mission on Tuesday as all those still missing are presumed dead.

The cause of the fire remains unknown. The US Coast Guard on Tuesday said the boat had passed all its safety tests before it set sail.

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told a Thursday press conference the five surviving crew members couldn't get to the passengers sleeping below the ship's hold because of the flames.

They also tried to open the doors of the galley to help the passengers escape, but were blocked by the fire, the NTSB said. They ended up having to jump from the boat to escape.

Read more: Crew members who survived the California boat fire say they desperately tried to save passengers sleeping on the ship's lower deck

Investigators are now trying to piece together a timeline of the disaster. Maritime experts told the AP earlier this week the investigation could be marred by the fact that evidence may have burned or sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

You can read the lawsuit here.

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