Lawsuits filed against Conception dive boat owner claim charging stations caused fatal fire

Megan Diskin, Ventura County Star
Lawsuits filed against Conception dive boat owner claim charging stations caused fatal fire

Four more lawsuits were announced Monday in the deadly Conception dive boat fire off the Ventura County coast in California, alleging that ion lithium battery charging stations were to blame

The litigation was announced at a morning news conference at the Los Angeles office of the law firm Panish, Shea & Boyle. The firm teamed up with maritime lawyers from Philadelphia-based Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky. 

“Today, we have filed claims on behalf of four of the victims who were killed in this terrible tragedy. They are Allie Kurtz, Yulia Krashennaya, Kaustbh Nirmal and Sanjeeri Deopujari. Their families have asked us to do two things: to find out what happened and to make sure it never happens again," said Robert Mongeluzzi, the Philadelphia firm's founder. 

The claims allege the boat fire started in or near the galley, which is where ion lithium battery charging strips would have been. 

Attorneys have not been able to look at any evidence of the boat fire because the vessel is in the possession of the National Transportation Safety Board.  

The attorneys pointed to news reports regarding a fire aboard Vision, a vessel similar to Conception, a year earlier. That fire reportedly involved an overcharged cellphone, they said. The blaze was caught quickly and the device was thrown overboard, said Jeffrey Goodman, a partner in the Philadelphia firm. 

The blaze was not reported to the U.S. Coast Guard, Goodman said. If a fire causes at least $75,000 in damage, it must be reported to the Coast Guard, he said. A cellphone wouldn't have cost that much, he said. 

Search warrants: Federal agencies serve search warrants at Truth Aquatics, owner of California boat in Labor Day fire

The lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The Conception was out for a Labor Day weekend diving trip off Santa Cruz Island when a fire broke out before dawn Sept. 2. Of the 39 people on board, five survived, all crew members. One crew member and 33 passengers died in the fire. 

All six crew members and the 33 passengers were asleep when the blaze broke out, according to a preliminary report from the NTSB. The report did not say what caused the fire. The agency is one of several investigating the incident. 

Authorities with the U.S. Coast Guard said the Conception was required to have one crew member awake and designated as roving patrol when the passengers' bunks were occupied.

Attorneys spoke with prior captains of the Conception and others who  ventured aboard the boat, Mongeluzzi said. Their statements show a pattern of the Conception not having a required roving patrol, he said. 

"This has become more important over the last decade as electronic devices on ships have proliferated, much like on planes," Mongeluzzi said.

California boat fire: Authorities say victims likely died of smoke inhalation, not burns

He said the airplane industry has done a good job at addressing technological advances with their charging stations. Mongeluzzi said the maritime industry has failed to keep up with technology. 

The Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics and operated out of Santa Barbara Harbor, where a makeshift memorial sprang up after the deadly fire.

Three days after the blaze broke out, attorneys for Truth Aquatics, owner Glen Fritzler and his wife, Dana, filed a petition in federal court seeking to fend off any civil actions. It cited an 1851 maritime law that could limit their liability. 

"In order to escape liability, they have to prove that the vessel wasn't unseaworthy and they did not have foreknowledge of what could occur," Mongeluzzi said. "We will demolish their limitation liability action and defenses and hold them accountable on behalf of these victims." 

Monday's litigation was filed in response to the Truth Aquatics petition.

The widow of a passenger and a crew member who broke his leg getting to safety filed similar claims challenging the liability petition. 

Teacher, biologist, nurse: These are some of the victims of the California boat fire

Russell Brown, attorney for Truth Aquatics, did not comment on the new litigation Monday. Brown, a lawyer with the Gordon & Rees firm, said he had not received the filings. 

Conception was one of three vessels owned by Truth Aquatics. Operations on the two others, Vision and Truth, were suspended about a month after the Conception burned and sank. 

Federal investigators toured the Vision days after the disaster to get an idea of what might have happened. 

Federal law required Conception to have two egress routes for the bunks below deck, Goodman said. Unfortunately, he said, both led to the galley. 

One of those routes was a hatch above a bunk, Mongeluzzi said. 

"It is a ridiculous avenue of possible escape," Mongeluzzi said. 

Follow Megan Diskin on Twitter: @megandiskin 

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Conception boat fire lawsuits blame charging stations