LOS ANGELES — Federal lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would change 19th century maritime liability rules in response to the 2019 boat fire off the coast of Southern California that killed 34 people.
The bill would update the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, under which boat owners can limit their liability to the value of the remains of the vessel. In the case of the Conception, the scuba diving boat where an inferno trapped 33 passengers and one crew member in the bunkroom below deck, the boat was a total loss.
The legislation would be retroactively applied to the families of Conception victims if it passes, officials said. The tragedy was one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.
The bill, sponsored by California Democrats Rep. Salud Carbajal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would mean that owners of small passenger vessels could be held legally responsible for maritime accidents. The owners would be mandated to compensate victims and their families regardless of the value of the boat after the incident.
The 1851 law is a time-tested legal maneuver that has been successfully employed by owners of the Titanic and countless other crafts, some as small as Jet Skis. It has its origins in 18th century England and was meant to promote the shipping business.
Carbajal, who represents the area where the Conception disaster occurred, said the 2019 fire prompted lawmakers to see how they could help the victims' families.
“While nothing makes up for the loss, at the very least they’d get just and fair compensation that’s owed to them,” he told The Associated Press. “The aftermath of this tragedy brought this to light.”
Feinstein, in a statement, said the law “doesn’t account for modern tourism such as commercial dive boats."
The Passenger Vessel Association, a trade group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the current act, the company Truth Aquatics and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have to show they were not at fault in the Conception disaster. Even if the captain or crew are officially blamed, the Fritzlers and their insurance company could avoid paying a dime under the law.
The Fritzlers' suit to limit their liability remains ongoing in federal court. Attorneys for the couple did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney for the families, told AP the “long overdue” legislation may not really affect the Conception case because the Fritzlers do not have many assets to compensate the families.
However, Goodman said the bill is important in a broader sense to hold boat owners and operators accountable.
“Removing the financial protections provided (to) them will promote maritime safety moving forward,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the disaster did not find the cause of the fire, but it blamed the vessel’s owners for a lack of oversight and said failing to post a night watch allowed flames to spread quickly.
The Conception's captain, Jerry Boylan, pleaded not guilty in February to rare federal manslaughter charges. Prosecutors say Boylan failed to follow safety rules before the fire broke out Sept. 2, 2019, by failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire ignited. His case is pending.
Boylan and four other crew members, who had all been sleeping above deck, escaped from the fiery boat after the captain made a panicked mayday call.
Associated Press writer Brian Melley contributed.