Crewmember Files Lawsuit in the Deadly Conception Dive Boat Fire - NBC Bay Area

Crewmember Files Lawsuit in the Deadly Conception Dive Boat Fire

The crewmember was sleeping on the top deck of a 75-foot boat when it caught fire on Labor Day off the Southern California coast, leaving 34 people dead



    Crewmember Files Lawsuit in Conception Dive Boat Fire

    A crewmember who was injured in the deadly Conception dive boat fire has filed a lawsuit against its owners. Mekahlo Medina reports for Today in LA on Thursday Sept. 19, 2019.

    (Published Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019)

    One of five crewmembers who survived the deadly Conception dive boat fire on Labor Day off the Southern California coast has filed a lawsuit against the vessel's owners and a scuba diving charter company.

    Crewmember Ryan Sims was sleeping on the top deck of a 75-foot boat when it caught fire as it was anchored in the early morning hours of Sept. 2 during a recreational scuba diving trip, according to a court document filed in Ventura County. He was awakened by noises as the fast-moving fire engulfed the Conception and broke his leg when he and four other crewmembers jumped from the boat, according to the court filing, first obtained by the Pacific Coast Business Times.

    Thirty-three passengers and the only crewmember who was below decks were killed.

    The lawsuit, filed Sept. 12, seeks damages under the Jones Act, a U.S. law that regulates the nation's merchant marine. It alleges unseaworthiness, failure to properly maintain the vessel and general maritime negligence.

    Coast Guard records show the Conception passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations. Previous customers said the company that owns the vessel, Truth Aquatics, and the captains of its three boats were very safety conscious.

    "We can confirm that Ryan Sims was employed as a first galley cook and served 18 days with Truth Aquatics on five trips. Truth Aquatics is a family, not a big corporation. They are devastated for each victim and each survivor.

    This suit’s claims concerning the worthiness and safety of the boat along with necessary rescue and medical equipment are inconsistent with the years of successful annual U.S. Coast Guard inspection reports, including one in February of 2019. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined," Doug Schwartz, attorney for Truth Aquatics, said.

    In a statement issued earlier this month, an attorney for Truth Aquatics said crewmembers did everything the could to help passengers.

    A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report released earlier this month said all six crewmembers were asleep when the fire started. The report also stated that investigators are still attempting to determine the cause of the fire.

    "While we don't officially know the cause of the fire, we do believe from current evidence and testimonials that it was not caused by the operator, the boat or the crew, who acted heroically and did all in their power to try and save the lives of the passengers and their fellow crew member," said Douglas Schwartz, attorney for the owner of Truth Aquatics.

    Just days after the tragedy, the dive boat's owner filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability.

    The NTSB report noted that a crewmember sleeping in a wheelhouse berth was awakened by a noise and alerted others to the fire. Crewmembers tried to enter the passenger compartment, but were blocked by flames that had already spread to an access ladder. They then tried to access the area through a forward window, but were overwhelmed by smoke and jumped overboard, according to the report.

    Sims was recently hired by Truth Aquatics and had served on the Conception for three weeks, his attorney said in a statement. Attorney Kurt Arnold said Sims was sleeping during his designated rest time when the fire broke out. 

    As for a cause of the fire, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy has said investigators are looking at several factors, including how batteries and electronics were stored and charged, what crew members were doing at the time of the fire and their level of training. Investigators also have said they are looking into whether a crew member was assigned to keep watch over the boat and alert others to any dangers.

    Schwartz said an internal investigation determined one crewmember was awake and inspected the galley and saloon area as late as 2:30 a.m. The fire was reported at about 3 a.m.

    Divers have recovered the remains of all 34 victims -- 21 women and 13 men ranging from 16 to 62 years old. The boat's wreckage was raised from the ocean floor last week and transported to a port, where it will be examined by investigators.

    Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that preliminary examinations suggest the victims died from smoke inhalation, not burns. No autopsies have been conducted and official causes of death have not been determined.