First lawsuit filed by victim’s relative as a result of Conception disaster

The first family member of one of the 34 people killed in the fire on accommodation/dive boat Conception on September 2nd has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the ship’s owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and their dive-boat company, Truth Aquatics.

John Hillsman of McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky Law Firm filed the lawsuit on behalf of Christine Dignam. Her husband, Justin Dignam, was sleeping onboard the dive boat when it burst into flames, killing him, 32 other passengers and one crew member sleeping aboard the ship. Only the five crew members sleeping on the sun deck, including the captain, survived.

Dignam’s lawsuit against Truth Aquatics is a countersuit because the Fritzlers filed a federal lawsuit under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 three days after the incident. This law says the owner of any ship can limit damage claims to the value of the ship’s remains if they can prove they had no knowledge of any dangerous flaws.

In the case of the Conception the wreck was said in the suit to have “zero residual value,” which would mean the victims’ families could receive no compensation.

The damage limitation suit said that “the Conception, prior to and at the inception of the voyage, was tight, staunch and seaworthy and fit for the intended trip. The Fire and all consequential alleged injuries, damages and deaths occurred without the privity or knowledge on the part of

and was not caused or contributed to by any negligence, fault or knowledge on the part of the Fritzlers.”

The counterclaim asserts that the fire was caused by the Fritzlers’ negligence. Tit claims that the ship’s electrical system was powered by diesel generators, which passengers were actively encouraged to use to charge devices such as digital cameras, video-cameras, smartphones, cell phones, strobe lights, GoPros, laptop tablets, underwater-scooter power packs, and other battery-powered electronic equipment. The countersuit describes the battery charging station, which is located in the galley where the fire reportedly began, as an octopus charger comprising multiple power strips.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it has been speculated that lithium ion batteries charging may have sparked it. The countersuit says that the charging station was hazardous, and that no crew were mandated to patrol the charging station should it catch fire.

The NTSB is considering the charging station as a possible ignition source, and the US Coast Guard has issued a marine safety bulletin encouraging passenger boat operators to consider limiting the unsupervised use of charging devices and extension cords / power strips aboard their vessels.

Multiple federal investigations into the casualty are currently under way. The NTSB is the lead agency for the safety inquiry, and the Coast Guard has convened a separate Marine Board of Investigation (MBI).

The Department of Justice, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Coast Guard Investigative Service are conducting a parallel criminal investigation into the circumstances of the fire. 

The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a hearing to question NTSB and Coast Guard officials about the adequacy of existing safety requirements.

Dignam’s suit describes the below-deck passenger sleeping quarters, where Justin Dignam died, as a “space deep down in the hull itself that had no portholes, skylights, or windows,” with no exit besides a narrow, overhead escape hatch into the galley. The vessel’s engine room, generator space, and fuel tanks were also situated in the hull, below the main deck, aft of the passenger accommodations.

The boat’s dive station was said to have been unsafe. It was located back on the fantail, behind the galley. The Dignam suit said that “among other things, that station housed multiple high-pressure air compressors, one or more nitrox membrane systems, high-pressure piping, one or more banks of high-pressure, oxygen storage bottles, and thirty or more scuba bottles”.

Dignam is suing for wrongful death and survival damages, funeral and cremation expenses, punitive damages, the cost of the suit, and any other relief the court deems just and proper.

The Conception was built to code and had passed all recent safety inspections at the time of the fire.

Families of the remaining 33 Conception fire victims have six months to file counterclaims against the Fritzlers’ zero liability suit from the time they receive notice.

The original suit was filed on September 5th. It is a not unusual legal move in marine cases such as this.