The Ghost Ship victims’ families aren’t the only ones facing a heartbreaking legal setback on top of their deeply tragic loss as the dive boat owners in Monday morning’s deadly fire have filed their own preemptive civil suit to avoid paying damages.
You expected lawsuits in the wake of this week’s Santa Barbara boat fire that claimed 34 lives, but you probably didn’t expect that the boat operator would be the one doing the suing. But that is what’s happening, as the Associated Press reports that boat owner Truth Aquatics Inc. has already filed a lawsuit, not even four full days after the tragedy, intended to limit and possibly eliminate any insurance payout to the victims’ families.
It’s a complicated legal maneuver that dates back to a pre-Civil War provision of U.S. maritime law — and one that was meant to protect ship owners and encourage trade. The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 says that the owner of any ship vessel can limit damage claims to the value of the remains of a ship (in this case $0) if they can show they had no knowledge of any potential dangerous flaws. The same law was used by the 1912 owners of the Titanic, White Star Line, and more recently in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon fire and oil spill.
“It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that’s what always happens. They’re just protecting their position,” Tulane University maritime law director Martin J. Davies told the AP. “The optics are awful.”
But in the suit, the owners of the boat in question called the Conception say 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.”
One attorney is already gearing up to fight for the families. “The law is so antiquated and so skewed in favor of the ship owners that damages for wrongful death type cases is very limited unless one can prove exceptions,” says Barry Cappello, who’s in discussions with a firm to represent the families.
The owners of the Titanic also took this outdated law to the Supreme Court, and won. It still stands today. While victims’ families are entitled to damages within that law, the damages can be interpreted as the current value of the boat. Considering the Conception is destroyed, that value is zero — meaning the families might get no money whatsoever.
Image: Santa Barbara County Fire Department