Legal Liability Following Tragic California Boat Fire?

U.S. Coast Guard officials and the Santa Barbara Sheriff believe they have recovered 33 of the 34 bodies of those who died in a boat fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California. The victims were sleeping below the deck of the commercial submersible Conception when the fire broke out around 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning. Five crew members, including the captain, were on the third deck of the ship and were able to jump off before being rescued while another crew member died below deck.

fire and water

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board, along with Coast Guard officials, began investigating the fire. The concept had to be reviewed annually by the Coast Guard and, according to Monica Rochester, Captain of the US Coast Guard, fully complied with legal requirements. She added that with the rescue efforts halted, crews could focus on “why this incident happened and what we can learn from this tragedy”.

Authorities believe the flames moved quickly through the 75-foot ship, blocking a narrow staircase and escape hatch that led to the upper decks, leaving sleeping passengers virtually no chance of escaping. Inge Courtois, general manager of boat operator Truth Aquatics, told NBC News that the five surviving crew members had no choice but to jump off the ship or they would have died.

Maritime and constitutional law

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but litigation is likely to ensue after the fatal fire and laws governing marine violations may differ from those on land. Liability for unlawful death under general maritime law depends on where the facts occurred that caused the death. If the deaths occurred within three nautical miles of the United States, state law complements federal maritime law to remedy the situation, and state unjustified death laws apply. In that case, it would be California’s unlawful death laws, and possibly the general liability of carriers, that would bring the victims’ families to court.

However, if the deaths occurred further out at sea, a “spouse, parent, child or dependent relative of a deceased” can sue the crew and even the boat itself under federal death at sea law. However, the damages in these claims can be limited, and plaintiffs cannot recover for things like loss of society, loss of consortium, or punitive damages.

False boat accident deaths can be legally complex. Talk to an experienced lawyer if you have any questions.

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