Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 is under spotlight after California boat fire

Truth Aquatics, the owner of dive ship Conception that caught fire last week, killing all 33 passengers and one crew member, has filed a petition in the US District Court in Los Angeles seeking to avoid liability by invoking a law passed in 1851.

No lawsuits have yet been filed against Truth Aquatics as a result of the accident, but legal moves to limit liability are not unusual in such situations.

Wrongful death lawsuits by families of the victims were thought to be extremely likely.

The Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed sources, reported that investigators had already found safety issues on the Conception, including the lack of a night watchman who was assigned to be on duty while the rest of the crew and passengers were sleeping.

US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester confirmed that a night watchman or “rover” was stipulated by the boat’s inspection certificate.

Federal investigators have interviewed here the only survivors from the fire aboard the Conception, the captain and four crew members, as well as Glen Fritzler, whose Truth Aquatics Inc owns and operates the vessel.

The 1851 Act means that deaths at sea are legally very different from deaths on land or deaths during an aeroplane flight. On the water, maritime law applies, and any lawsuits can run up against the 1851 statute. The Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 is routinely invoked for an accident on a waterway. It allows the owner of a vessel to petition a federal court to exonerate it from damages, or limit damages to the post-accident value of the ship, in the case of the Conception would be zero. An owner has roughly six months to file a petition and can do so either before or after it is sued.

In the case of the Conception, a judge would look for evidence that showed the owner had “knowledge,” or some involvement in the accident. The captain and four crew were on deck when the flames erupted early Monday morning and were able to escape in an inflatable life boat, investigators said. One crew member was sleeping below deck with the passengers.

To escape liability the owner would need either to show that the incident was solely the result of actions or inactions of the crew, or that  the accident was in no way linked to something the owner did or should have done but did not.

The act requires an owner to show its actions did not cause the accident, or as the act puts it, that the owner lacked “privity or knowledge” of the incident. Owners rely on evidence that their ship was properly equipped, the crew well-trained and procedures were being followed.

The act was invoked in last year’s duck boat accident near Branson, Missouri, which killed 17 people. The judge has yet to rule on the petition to limit liability, but many of the victims’ claims have settled.