Conception boat owner, criticized as 'woefully underinsured,' sells rest of fleet

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SANTA BARBARA , CA - SEPTEMBER 02: The Vision and Truth Boats of Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbor sit idle today on the one year anniversary of the Conception Boat fire where 34 people died as family members with friends and officials gathered at Point Castillo at the end of Harbor Walk in the Santa Barbara Harbor where a plaque on a boulder was unveiled to memorialize the 34 lives lost in the Conception Diving Boat fire off Santa Cruz Island on the one year anniversary. Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Santa Barbara , CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
The Vision and the Truth, owned by the same company that owned the Conception, have been sold. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The owner of the Conception dive boat that caught fire off the Channel Islands, killing 34 below deck, has sold the two remaining boats in the fleet amid a flurry of new lawsuits filed by the victims' families.

Truth Aquatics was cited by the National Transportation Safety Board for poor oversight and a lack of a required roving night watch in the Labor Day 2019 deaths on the Conception. The buyer of the two vessels is a newly formed company, Channel Island Expeditions, described by the U.S. Coast Guard as being led by longtime adventurers in the oceans around the coastal islands.

The sale comes as several families of those killed off Santa Cruz Island filed wrongful-death lawsuits against Truth Aquatics and owner Glen Fritzler in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Those suits follow on the heels of the Conception owner agreeing to pause litigation in federal court in which it sought to avoid paying any more than the value of the burned vessel under a steamship era law that protected boat owners.

Attorney John R. Hillsman, who represents six families who are suing, said Truth Aquatics agreed to abate its federal litigation, a move that allows the families to proceed in Superior Court with their lawsuits.

After that state litigation is complete, everyone will return to federal court, where a judge will decide whether Truth Aquatics can legally limit its liability to the value of the wreck, Hillsman said.

Fritzler, who has denied wrongdoing, could not be reached for comment for this article.

According to lawyers for the families, the company's insurance policy limits were relatively small.

"It was woefully underinsured, and that is part of the problem," said Jennifer Fiore, a San Francisco attorney with extensive maritime litigation experience who represents two of the families. She said the law does not require more coverage.

Fiore said it was believed that the vessels were being sold to help pay for Fritzler's legal defense. Conception Capt. Jerry Boylan is already facing federal criminal charges and pleaded not guilty last month to 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter; the criminal investigation remains open.

Fritzler's lawyers are well-known criminal defense attorneys Hilary Potashner and Stephen Larson, a former head federal public defender in Los Angeles and a former federal judge, respectively. Potashner declined to comment on the sale, citing the ongoing lawsuits.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Kurt Fredrickson said Channel Islands Expeditions was the owner of Truth Aquatics' remaining dive boats as of Dec. 9.

Joel Mulder, Channel Islands Expeditions' fleet operation officer, said he and his partner acquired the vessels and plan to again operate them off the Channel Islands and elsewhere in California. "We are making all the safety improvements in preparation and we're working with the Coast Guard," he said.

Mulder said Truth Aquatics, Fritzler and his family "are not involved in any way" in the newly formed company. The company, according to California secretary of state records, was formed in November and led by Garrett Kababik, its chief expedition officer, who operates kayaking and other adventure trips to nearby islands. He has previously operated Channel Island Outfitters for a decade and Wild Blue Adventurers.

According to Mulder, the only financial tie to Truth Aquatics that still exists involves the boats' berths at Sea Landing. Truth Aquatics controls those berths and Channel Island Expeditions is paying it for their use on a scale that is partly based on the revenue generated by the vessels, he said.

A new website for the firm notes that it is "employee and community owned" and includes images of the two dive boats and an existing vessel used for kayaking. In a safety section, it states it employs highly trained and qualified captains, crew and guides and pays them living wages. It highlights that it deploys a safety management system with rigorous maintenance schedules, extensive training, drills and debriefings. In the Conception disaster, a lack of an adequate safety management system was among the NTSB's criticisms of Truth Aquatics.

Fiore said that without a judgment or court order there was nothing stopping the sale of the vessels, known as Vision and Truth. She said she wondered why, even though the owners have made changes to the vessels, are they "still so underinsured?"

Not surprisingly, she said, the families are very distrusting of Fritzler and his team. She said, "You have to remember, they FedEx overnight the limitation of liability action within days of the tragedy to all the families."

Fritzler in January agreed to pause his federal litigation and that required all claims to be filed in a Los Angeles federal court.

The victims' families say they want the Truth Aquatics owner to pay for his actions. "We want Glen Fritzler held accountable," said Kathleen McIlvain, whose husband and daughter-in-law are plaintiffs in the litigation. "But I am glad Truth Aquatics and Fritzler aren't running these boats anymore."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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