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The tragedy of the loss of lives on the Conception that burned and sank off Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day is aggravated and compounded for the grieving families by maritime law, which demands they take legal action must sooner than anyone would imagine.  Impaled by grief and the horror of death by fire, most families are not ready to deal with the realities of a wrongful death lawsuit.  That is a dangerous pitfall to be avoided.

The manufacturer, owners and insurers of the Conception have already lawyered up. I write based of years of experience in maritime lawsuits, defective product and fire claims, all of which uniquely bear on this horrific catastrophe and what the surviving families need to know.

Statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits in California

First, California’s two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death does not apply to the deaths on the dive boat.  The time limits for taking legal action will be controlled by the ticket purchased for this diving trip.

Under maritime law, the $665 ticket purchased for a three-day trip limits when a claim must be filed and in injury and death cases the ticket commonly imposes legal time limits that are much shorter than California’s two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death cases.

The ticket will dictate the time limit for the filing of claim and also for filing a lawsuit.  Time limits can be as short as three months for filing a claim and one year for filing suit.

The terms of the ticket also will demand that the surviving families give notice of their claim before filing a lawsuit.  And the ticket will dictate where and how notice must be given.

Failure to comply will bar the claim and provide an absolute defense to the owners and operators of the Conception, making impact of the loss of life more tragic.

Was the boat safe?

Second, the media reports that the boat complied with Coast Guard regulations requiring two exits from the sleeping berths, implies that the boat was safe.

Legally, that is not the end of the analysis.  It is the beginning.

In Stranathan v. Land n’ Sea, a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from the sinking of a 45’ pleasure craft in heavy surf on the California coast, the manufacturer raised the defense that the boat complied with Coast Guard regulations. We defeated that claim because under California law compliance with a regulation or standard is not an absolute defense.  Having passed inspections by the Coast Guard did not exonerated the manufacturer and operator for a dangerous and defective design.  The Land n’ Sea was a bad design that floundered and sank when it encountered an expected hazard.

A regulation only provides a minimal standard for any product, including boats.  Regulations by definition state the minimal measure of care required of a manufacturer.  Particular conditions and situations may require a company to use more care than regulations require.  No matter the claim that Coast Guard regulations and approvals were sufficient, a jury will ultimately determine whether something more than the minimum was required under the specific facts of a particular case.

Escape times are critical in sleeping berths

From one initial report, the exits from the sleeping berths on this 1981 vessel both led to the galley where the fire most probably initiated and fueled by scuba tanks.  In multiple fuel system failure lawsuits that we have prosecuted over many years, as recently as two years ago involving a Crown Victoria filed in Sacramento federal court, the issue of escape time is a critical aspect of fire survival.

On the Conception, in all probability If one exit had been directly to the open deck, lives would have been saved.  All that we know is that the crew’s quarters were above the fire and they all escaped.

Once the wreckage is raised and inspected the explosion and burn pattern will reveal the source, path of the fire, the incineration of scuba tanks stored near the fire source and whether a separate escape path would have made a difference for the high number of passengers on a 75’ boat.

In the end a jury will make the final determination if it was foreseeable that the placement of scuba tanks and an expected galley fire would engulf both exits from the sleeping hold below making it impossible to escape.

How does a vessel’s seaworthiness factor into lawsuits?

Third, seaworthiness of a vessels in admiralty law is an issue that will play an important role in the coming lawsuits.

When it comes to ships at sea, the owner has an absolute duty to provide a seaworthy ship, one that is reasonably fit in all respects to encounter the perils of the seas.  The law imposes liability for defective conditions on the vessel, as well as an incompetent crew.

Fire at sea is a well-recognized peril common to all vessels and the implied warranty of seaworthiness requires the owner to exercise the highest standard of care in the operation of a ship to protect against fire. The implied warranty of seaworthiness applies to seamen working on the ship and it does not protect cruise ship passengers, nonetheless that legal issue will be at the heart of the survivors’ wrongful death claims.