DIVING NEWS

Conception divers’ families sue Coast Guard

Picture: Ventura County Fire Department.

The US Coast Guard is being sued for wrongful death by the families of the 34 people, mainly scuba divers, who died in the Conception liveaboard fire off Santa Cruz Island, California in 2019. 

The 48-page civil lawsuit, filed on 1 September almost exactly two years after the fatal incident, blames the Coast Guard, the regulatory agency responsible for certifying such vessels in the USA, for allowing the dive-boat to operate with electrical and safety systems that it says failed to meet its own standards.

“Had the Coast Guard properly inspected the Conception it never would have been certified, never set sail, and these 34 victims would not have lost their lives,” said legal-team representative Jeffrey P Goodman.

The families are seeking unspecified financial damages. They are already suing Conception owner-operator Truth Aquatics for wrongful death and negligence, while its captain Jerry Boylan awaits trial after pleading not guilty to 34 criminal charges of seaman’s manslaughter for his failure to provide a night-watch.

He and all but one of the crew had been asleep on the top deck, while the other crew-member had been sleeping below in the bunkroom with the 33 passengers when they were trapped by the fire and overcome by smoke.

According to an incident report by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported on Divernet last October, Truth Aquatics and Boylan had failed to comply with Coast Guard regulations, but the new legal action goes further by alleging that the Coast Guard itself had failed to enforce those requirements.

The NTSB said that Truth Aquatics had failed to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crew-member operations, including the need for a roving patrol. In its absence the fire had been able to grow undetected in the area above the sleeping quarters.

Contributing to the undetected growth of the fire was the lack of a Coast Guard regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces, said the NTSB, while contributing to the high loss of life were inadequate emergency-escape arrangements from the bunkroom, with both its main exit and escape hatch emerging into the same fire-ravaged compartment.

Less than a year before the incident, the Coast Guard had certified the boat as suitable to carry 40 passengers overnight. Yet according to the lawsuit Conception’s electrical wiring systems, fire-detection and suppression systems and passenger accommodation escape hatch had already been in “open and obvious violation of federal regulations” at that time.

The suit further alleges that the Coast Guard either knew or should have known that Truth Aquatics had added “undocumented and ill-designed” electrical outlets throughout the vessel to enable divers and crew to recharge cameras, phones, DPVs and other lithium-ion battery equipment.

6 September 2021

The NTSB report had concluded that the fire began where li-ion batteries were being charged, though it could not confirm this as the cause of the fire.

Following the fire the Coast Guard had inspected Vision, another Truth Aquatics vessel that was similar in design to Conception.

It had found “numerous glaring deficiencies” in its wiring and electrical systems, fire-detection and suppression systems and escape hatch, states the suit, with “homemade” wiring repairs and an electrical system said to be too stressed to run when the galley stove was on.

According to Goodman, certification of non-compliant vessels by the regulatory body had become “commonplace” over decades.

“The time has come for the Coast Guard to be held accountable for its failures to protect those victims and prevent future maritime disasters,” he says.

The Coast Guard has yet to respond.