The Filing of the Petition of Limitation of Liability-What Does This Mean for the Families of Passengers and Crew of the Conception?

Yesterday, the owners of the dive boat CONCEPTION, Truth Aquatics Inc., filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court in Los Angeles to limit and possibly, eliminate, their liability in the fire and sinking of the CONCEPTION and the death of 33 passengers and crew, while the NTSB and investigators are searching diligently to discover answers for why the fire started on the CONCEPTION. Truth Aquatics, Inc. is trying to limit its legal exposure from the fire to the current value of the CONCEPTION- zero. It is arcane law from the 1800s which was designed to promote shipping in the 1800s and now can let an Owner escape liability.

The filing of a Petition for Limitation of Liability means that even though the owners of the CONCEPTION have millions of dollars of insurance, they have invoked this law which enables it to limit or eliminate their liability unless the Claimants, i.e., the families of the deceased and injured crew members, prove that the Owner of the CONCEPTION had privity or knowledge of the negligent and/or unseaworthy condition, i.e. the unsafe condition/the risk of harm, when the CONCEPTION left port. What it basically does is place a greater burden on the grieving families and injured crew members in proving liability and provides a mechanism for the owners to escape liability over the fire on the CONCEPTION.

The filing of the Petition for Limitation of Liability further prevents the families of the deceased passenger from filing any wrongful death lawsuits under maritime law over the loss of the loved ones and crew members from filing any personal injury lawsuits as the Federal Court will issue an injunction restraining any further lawsuits from being commenced and will further freeze any lawsuits that have been filed. With the Limitation of Liability being filed, all the parties, meaning anyone bringing a claim against the owner of the CONCEPTION will be brought into the Federal Court and there will be a legal fight, possibly several years, over whether the Owner, Aquatics Inc., had privity or knowledge of the unseaworthy and/or negligent condition of the CONCEPTION.

It will be up to judge assigned to this case, to decide this issue. If Judge enters a finding that the Owners had privity or knowledge of the unseaworthy or negligent condition and that it was a cause of the sinking of the CONCEPTION, then the Petition for Limitation of Liability is denied, the Petition will then be dismissed and there will be an order dissolving the injunction. At this time, the families will be able to pursue their wrongful death claims and crew members will be able to pursue their personal injury actions under maritime law. If the Court exonerates the owners of the CONCEPTION, the Claimants will receive nothing. If the Court grants Limitation, recoveries will be limited to the amount of the Limitation fund proven a trial which at this time is zero.

In this case, proving the owners had privity and knowledge of negligent and/or unseaworthy conditions will more than likely focus on several of the following issues:

  • Was the CONCEPTION in compliance with regulations regarding fire extinguishers, alarms and other fire safety equipment on the vessel?
  • Were the smoke alarms and fire extinguishers working?
  • Was there an electrical problem on the vessel causing the fire?
  • Was there sufficient safety protocols set up for fire on board the CONCEPTION?
  • Was there proper means of escape from the sleeping quarters?  How many means of escapes? Was the emergency hatch easily accessible and able to open?

With surviving crew members able to tell investigators what happened, there will be a tremendous amount of information that the NTSB and Coast Guard will be able to obtain for investigation. The key in the investigation will be how much they can ascertain from the remaining structure of the vessel that was recovered and being examined by investigators.

With the filing of the Limitation of Liability Proceeding just days after the fire on the CONCEPTION, this terrible tragedy entered a new stage. The families are still grieving trying to go day by day with the unimaginable losses they have incurred and now if they don’t hire attorneys to fight this Petition for Limitation of Liability and file an Answer and Claim; they will be barred from bringing any claims in the future as a result of their loss.

For all the divers who tragically died on the CONCEPTION, they had a love of the sea that has been ingrained in them from childhood, family, friends, schooling or due to the inherent beauty of the ocean and its wildlife. Since we have entered this legal and fact-finding stage of the sinking of the CONCEPTION it is important to remember the families, who have lost loved ones and are struggling every day over their unimaginable loss.