Federal lawmakers this week introduced legislation that would change 19th-century maritime liability rules in response to the 2019 boat fire off the coast of Southern California that killed 34 people.
The bill would update the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, under which boat owners can limit their liability to the value of the remains of the vessel. In the case of the Conception, the scuba diving boat where a blaze trapped 33 passengers and a crew member in the dormitory below deck, the boat was a total loss.
The legislation would be applied retroactively to the families of Conception victims if passed, officials said. The tragedy was one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.
The bill, sponsored by California Democratic Representative Salud Carbajal and Senator Dianne Feinstein, would mean owners of small passenger vessels could be held legally responsible for shipping accidents. The owners would be mandated to compensate the victims and their families regardless of the value of the boat after the incident.
The law of 1851 is a proven legal maneuver that has been used with success by the owners of the Titanic and countless other craft, some as small as jet skis. It has its origins in 18th century England and was intended to promote maritime trade.
Carbajal, who represents the region where the Conception disaster occurred, said the 2019 fire prompted lawmakers to see how they can help the families of the victims.
“While nothing will make up for the loss, at the very least they would get the fair and equitable compensation they are owed,” he told The Associated Press. “The aftermath of this tragedy has brought this to light. “
Feinstein, in a statement, said the law “does not take into account modern tourism such as commercial dive boats.”
The Passenger Vessel Association, a trade group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Under current law, Truth Aquatics and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler must prove that they were not at fault in the Conception disaster. Even if the captain or crew are officially blamed, the Fritzlers and their insurance company could avoid paying a dime under the law.
The Fritzlers’ lawsuit to limit their liability is still pending in Federal Court. Lawyers for the couple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney for families, told AP that the “backward” legislation might not really affect the Conception case because the Fritzlers don’t have a lot of assets to compensate the families.
However, Goodman said the bill is important in a broader sense in holding boat owners and operators accountable.
“The removal of the financial protections provided to them will promote maritime security in the future,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the disaster did not find the cause of the blaze, but blamed the ship’s owners for a lack of oversight and said failure to put in place a Night watch had allowed the flames to spread rapidly.
Conception captain Jerry Boylan pleaded not guilty in February to rare federal manslaughter charges. Prosecutors say Boylan broke safety rules before the fire broke out on September 2, 2019, failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a night watchman traveling on the boat when the fire broke out. His case is pending.
Boylan and four other crew members, all of whom were sleeping on the deck, escaped the flaming boat after the captain gave a panicked panic call.
Associated Press writer Brian Melley contributed.
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