Less than four days after Monday's tragic diving boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara, diving tour company Truth Aquatics Inc. has sued the families of 34 people who were killed aboard their vessel, as well as the 5 crew members who survived. The lawsuit was filed under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, a centuries-old maritime law that protects vessel owners from legal liability exceeding the value of their vessel. In this case, the value of the destroyed vessel is zero.
Essentially, Truth Aquatics Inc. is trying to limit all payouts for damages from the fire to $0.
As ruthless as it is to sue the victims of a horrible tragedy less than a week later, this is a fairly common tactic in the maritime industry. TOTE Maritime, the owner of the sunken vessel El Faro, sued the families of its 33 missing crew members to limit their ability to sue for damages. Notably, the company filed a claim with their own insurance company for the value of the vessel and claimed a higher value on it than they claimed it was worth. In other words, they tried to make money on the tragedy they caused. In another case, the corporate owners of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig filed a claim under the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act against their massive crew and the families of 11 dead victims after their own policies led to a fatal explosion.
In the case of Truth Aquatics, the survivors and the families of the victims have only six months to challenge the suit—six months that should be spent grieving, healing, and processing this horrible event. Whatever the outcome of the case, Truth Aquatics just enlisted dozens of grieving people into a legal battle they never signed up for. To date, none of the victims' families have even sued; crew members have only given written notice that they might file claims in the future.
One expert on maritime cases said "They're forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking."
Why File Under a 150-Year-Old Law?
The Limitation of Liability Act made sense for the time it was written. In 1851, America had a fragile maritime industry, and vessel owners took on tremendous risk with every venture. Voyages could take weeks, with crews contending with unpredictable weather, communicable diseases, pirates, and wartime conditions. If a vessel lost cargo while at sea, the ship owner could be held financially liable for it. While maritime trade was profitable, it could also lead to ruin.
To mitigate that, lawmakers passed the Limitation of Liability Act, which protected vessel owners from financial liability that exceeded the value of their ships. If a vessel went down in a storm or needed to dump cargo to save itself, the vessel owner was only liable up to the cost of the ship (which meant merchants couldn't recoup their losses by suing the shipping company for bad weather). The law led to entrepreneurship, helped grow American trade, and protected small businesses. Over a century later, the law has served a purpose completely unintended by its architects—it has insulated negligent companies from being held accountable for harmful practices.
An Old Law Creating New Problems
No one knows what caused the fire aboard The Conception early Monday morning. The captain and four crew members have only said that they tried to get to the sleeping passengers below deck, but the fire kept them from opening the galley doors or getting into the ship's hold. They eventually sent out a mayday call and jumped ship to escape the blaze.
Here's what we do know: the ship wasn't thousands of miles off the coast. It wasn't caught in a storm. It wasn't besieged by pirates or foreign powers. The people aboard didn't catch a fever or run out of food. Instead, a ship that was designed by its owners caught fire less than 100 yards from the shore and killed 34 people. The Limitation of Liability Act isn't shielding an entrepreneur from tea merchants. It's letting a company off the hook for contributing to the deaths of nearly three dozen passengers.
Filing under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 is a gross misapplication of the law and the law's intended use. It is ruthless, heartless, and utterly without compassion or humanity. It is also perfectly legal.
How Conception Fire Victims Can Fight the Limitation of Liability Act Suit
Our familiarity with the Limited Liability Act is more than theory; our maritime attorneys have challenged the law in court (and won) multiple times. In 2010, we represented nearly a third of the crew members from the Deepwater Horizon. We helped crew members take one of the largest oil companies in the world to task for their unsafe practices, ensuring that crew members would get the medical care and financial support they'd need. In 2015, we represented the widows of multiple crew members of the El Faro, which sailed into a hurricane despite being in seriously unsafe condition, leading to the deaths of all 33 crew members. In both cases, we secured massive results for our clients.
We know how these maritime companies operate; we know how hard it is on families to face up to these large, faceless companies, to "lawyer up" when all they want is to bury their loved ones and move forward. The victims should be allowed to mourn, to have what all people need in tragic times: some room to breathe.
Instead, Truth Aquatics is forcing these grieving, vulnerable, and mourning families to hire lawyers and file claims less than a week later. It's not fair. But, if you need someone who has seen these tactics before and knows how to beat them, you can call us. Dial (888) 493-1629 to hear from a maritime attorney about what to do next.
Arnold & Itkin holds companies like Truth Aquatics accountable to the people they hurt. To learn how, call us at (888) 493-1629 or send us a message with our online form. Our cases are filed with zero risk to our clients—we front the costs, so our clients only pay if they win.