The owners of a dive boat where 34 people died in a fire filed a lawsuit Thursday to head off potentially costly litigation. Truth Aquatics Inc. filed the action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under an 1851 Law that pre-dates the Civil War citing a provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability. Investigators are still searching for what caused the blaze.
This legal maneuver was also used by the owners of the Titanic which sank in 1912 and has since been used by the owners of other crafts some as small as Jet Skis. This maneuver was anticipated by maritime law experts however the fact that it was filed just three days after inferno came as a surprise to many legal observers.
The deceased families who are not named in the complaint, will be served with notice that they have a limited time to challenge the company’s effort to clear itself of negligence or limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which is a total loss. “They’re forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now,” said attorney Charles Naylor, who represents victims in maritime law cases. “They have six months to do this. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking.”
Professor Martin J. Davies, the maritime law director at Tulane University, said the cases always follow accidents at sea and always look bad, but they are usually initiated by insurance companies to limit losses.
“It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that’s what always happens. They’re just protecting their position,” Davies said. “It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one. … The optics are awful.” The U.S. law dates to 1851, but it has its origins in 18th century England, Davies said. It was designed to encourage the shipping business. Every country with a shipping industry has something similar on the books.
In order to prevail, the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have to show they were not at fault in the disaster. The owners assert in the lawsuit they “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged.”
If the owner loses, there’s the potential of unlimited liability.
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