The owners of a dive boat that caught fire on September 2 and killed 34 people off Southern California have filed a lawsuit to head off potentially costly litigation. Some observers have condemned the move, saying it is disrespectful to the families of the deceased.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by Truth Aquatics Inc., the company that owned the Conception, under a 19th-century provision of maritime law that allows vessel owners to limit their liability. The law was originally intended to encourage the shipping industry, but it has been successfully used by owners of the Titanic and many other watercraft—even Jet Skis—to avoid liability for personal injury and wrongful death.
Many legal observers were surprised that the filing came just three days after the deadly fire. Although the families of the deceased are not named in the complaint, they will be served with notice that they have a limited timeframe within which to dispute Truth Aquatics Inc.’s assertion that it was not negligent or that its liability should be limited to the value of what remains of the boat, which is a total loss.
The lawsuit is intended to protect Truth Aquatics Inc. from being held liable for the 34 deaths that happened on its vessel. Although the company has been criticized for bringing the action so soon after the deadly inferno—when surviving family members have just begun to grieve—actions of this nature are not unheard-of in maritime law.
For the lawsuit to be successful, the company must demonstrate that it was not at fault for the disaster. The complaint alleges that reasonable care was used to make the Conception seaworthy, and that the vessel was properly equipped, supplied, and manned.
According to legal experts, even if the crew and captain are found at fault for the incident, the owners of the boat and their insurance company might still get away with paying nothing.
Besides protecting the boat owners from legal exposure, the lawsuit will require any lawsuits brought by surviving family members to be filed in the same federal court. A judge will determine in a non-jury trial whether Truth Aquatics Inc. can show it wasn’t liable, in which case the company’s liability would be limited to the value of the remains of the vessel. Per the complaint, the boat is a total loss with zero value.
If, however, the attorneys representing the family members of the deceased can prove that the vessel was not properly equipped or otherwise was unseaworthy, there’s the potential of unlimited liability.
Federal Agents Have Since Raided the Office of Truth Aquatics Inc.
On September 9, multiple news outlets reported that the case had become a criminal investigation. According to Las Vegas Review-Journal, federal agents have raided the Santa Barbara office of Truth Aquatics Inc. The Coast Guard, FBI, and U.S. attorney in Los Angeles are overseeing the investigation.
At least four surviving crew members and the captain have been interviewed by investigators. Authorities are trying to determine if any safety issues contributed to the fire—for example, whether a night watchman was present when the fire started.
Some legal observers have speculated that charges could be brought under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. A conviction comes with up to 10 years in prison. To secure a conviction, the prosecutor needs only to prove misconduct or simple negligence on the part of the captain or crew.
A captain may be convicted if the boat lacked adequate safety or firefighting equipment, or if there was a failure to have someone keep watch. If it is determined that the boat owner engaged in connivance, misconduct, fraud, neglect, or violation of the law that takes a life, the owner could face the same charges.
Although the cause of the blaze has yet to be identified, investigators increasingly believe that it began in the galley, and victims were trapped below deck with both exits blocked by fire. Potential sources of the inferno include electronics such as cameras or cellphones, batteries, or ignition equipment.
What Damages Might Be Available After a Wrongful Death in California?
There’s nothing that can undo the tragedy of losing a family member in an unexpected accident. This is especially true if another person’s negligence was to blame. Although no amount of compensation can alleviate the grief that surviving loved ones are left to endure, it may be possible to at least restore financial stability by bringing a wrongful death claim.
A sudden death in the family often comes with unexpected costs that can easily lead to financial turmoil and potential bankruptcy. If the deceased was a primary income earner, for example, their dependents might not be able to make ends meet in the wake of the loss.
Fortunately, a wrongful death claim may yield in both economic and non-economic damages. Under some circumstances, a survival action can also be brought against the defendant. While a wrongful death claim is intended to compensate certain family members for the damages they incur as a result of the loss, a survival action is brought to pursue damages the deceased incurred between the fatal injury and his or her death.
The following damages may be recoverable in a wrongful death claim:
- Anticipated financial contributions from the deceased;
- Loss of benefits or gifts;
- Funeral and burial costs;
- Loss of services provided by the deceased;
- Loss of advice, assistance, protection, love, and training;
- Loss of sexual relations for the surviving spouse; and
- Emotional distress (if a claimant witnessed the accident or death of their loved one).
The following damages may be recoverable in a survival action:
- Medical bills resulting from the fatal injury;
- Lost income between the fatal injury and death;
- Property damage; and
- Punitive damages (if the death was caused by a felonious intentional killing).
Often, wrongful death claims and survival actions are combined and brought to court together.
Discuss Your Case with a Long Beach Wrongful Death Attorney
Your Injuries Are Personal to Me
Attorney Michael D. Waks has extensive experience representing clients who have lost loved ones in unexpected accidents. He has won substantial settlements and verdicts in wrongful death cases of varying complexity, and he can make sure you are well-represented through every stage of the proceedings. To set up a free consultation, call (562) 206-1939 or send us a message online.
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