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Widow of California Boat Disaster Victim Sues Vessel’s Owners

— November 12, 2019

Christine Dignam says the owners of the ‘Conception’ didn’t take proper safety precautions, leading to a fire which killed all 33 passengers aboard.

The widow of a man who died aboard September’s dive boat disaster in California is suing the vessel’s owners.

The Associated Press reports that the lawsuit was filed Monday by Christine Dignam, whose husband, Justin Dignam, died when the Conception caught fire off the Santa Barbara coast. According to Dignam, the Conception was neither safe nor fit for commercial safe.

Her suit alleges that the Conception didn’t have adequate smoke detectors and was missing critical firefighting equipment. Passenger rooms lacked emergency exits, and there was no on-duty night watch to spot the fire when it first broke out.

As the A.P. notes, the blaze is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. The fire killed all 33 passengers aboard the boat, as well as one crew member who’d been sleeping below deck.

However, the Conception’s parent corporation—Truth Aquatics Inc.—tried to pre-empt litigation in early September. On September 5th, just two days after the disaster, Truth Aquatics Inc. owners Glen and Dana Fritzler filed a federal suit citing antiquated maritime law.

The law the Fritzlers used to preempt and limit lawsuits dates back to 18th century England. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

In their claim, the Fritzlers say 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.”

Their maneuver, says Fox News, would like the Truth Aquatics serve anyone seeking to recoup damages a notice that the firm is not liable for damages, with victims being given a limited time to challenge that claim.

Fox notes that laws like that have their origin in 18th century England. They were designed to facilitate shipping, encouraging new entrants and shielding established players from liability in the event of unexpected tragedy.

Similar laws were enacted in the United States in 1851, and have been used by shipping lines ever since. Charles Naylor, an attorney who’s worked maritime claims, suggested the speed with which the Fritzlers rushed to file their suit was insensitive and ill-timed, forcing victims’ families to respond in grief.

So, in order for Dignam’s suit to move forward, she’ll have to show that Truth Aquatics had reason to believe their boat may’ve been unsafe. And that may be no small challenge. The Associated Press notes that—per the U.S. Coast Guard—the Conception had passed its two most recent safety inspections with incident.

However, authorities now say that all six of the Conception’s crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, just before dawn—a violation of maritime regulations requiring a “roving” night watch.

Dignam’s suit further alleges that the Conception had an unsafe wiring system, which may’ve contributed to the fire.


California dive boat owners file lawsuit to avoid liability after deadly fire

Widow sues boat owner in fire off California that killed 34

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