One week after the Conception dive boat burst into flames at 3 a.m. Labor Day — killing 34 of the 39 people onboard — many questions go unanswered. One of the victims’ remains is still lost at sea, the reason for a search warrant issued Sunday morning is still unknown, and the owners of the boat recently filed a lawsuit protecting themselves from damage claims — a move that came as a surprise to many.
The owners of the Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler of Truth Aquatics, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, just three days after the mysterious boat fire erupted — the cause of which is still unknown — in an attempt to shield them from damage claims by the victims’ families.
The Fritzlers are suing under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, which says the owner of any ship can limit damage claims to the value of the ship’s remains if they can prove they had no knowledge of any dangerous flaws. In the case of the Conception, the wreck is said to have “zero residual value,” which would mean the victims’ families can receive no compensation.
Santa Barbara attorney Barry Cappello is seeking to represent the victims’ families in the wake of the Fritzlers’ suit. He called the Limitation of Liability Act a “ridiculous, archaic law as ancient as the dinosaurs.”
“As a lawyer I would be arguing for my clients on some very strong grounds,” Cappello said, who is recognized as one of the nation’s leading trial lawyers on complex commercial litigation issues. “The owner clearly should have known this could happen. The ship was a floating death trap.”
Family members of the victims have just six months to file claims challenging the lawsuit once they are served notices of its existence. None have filed claims in the one week since the tragedy occurred, though the complaint states the Fritzlers believe one or more of the persons aboard has said they might.
“It’s extremely peculiar,” Cappello said. “You usually don’t see a lawsuit anywhere near this soon. It is almost always filed in response to a family member filing first. I’ve never seen this used as a tool to get ahead of it.”
The Independent made multiple attempts to contact Glen Fritzler and his attorney, Russell Brown, for comment, but they did not return calls or emails by publication deadline. They claim in the lawsuit, however, that they had absolutely no knowledge of any potential safety hazards on the Conception.
“The CONCEPTION, prior to and at the inception of the voyage, was tight, staunch and seaworthy and fit for the intended [2019 Labor Day Weekend] trip,” the suit reads. “The Fire and all consequential alleged injuries, damages and deaths occurred without the privity or knowledge on the part of [the Fritzlers] and was not caused or contributed to by any negligence, fault or knowledge on the part of [the Fritzlers].”
In a message posted at Truth Aquatics’ website, Fritzler wrote he could not comment as the investigation was ongoing, but she added, “We are utterly crushed. We are devastated. We are a small, family-run business that has taken this event entirely to heart. Our customers are like family to us, many returning for decades. Our crew is family. … The families and friends of the victims and survivors are now, and forever, in our thoughts and prayers.”
Search Warrants and the Last Missing Person
Search warrants were served Sunday Morning at Truth Aquatics’ offices at the Santa Barbara Harbor and for the company’s other two boats moored there — the Truth and the Vision. The searches continued all day.
Lt. Erik Raney, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said he couldn’t disclose the reason for the warrants or if anything compromising has been found, due to the ongoing investigation. He could confirm, however, that the warrants were obtained by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service with the assistance of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
To date, the 34th person has yet to be found. The search-and-recovery efforts were put on hold Friday because of strong winds and strong currents off of Santa Cruz Island where the Conception remains underwater. As of Monday afternoon, the weather still hasn’t subsided enough to continue, Raney said.
The strong winds also forced the salvage operations to come to a halt. As of Friday, the boat had been rolled upright. Raney said as soon as the weather permits, the top priority is locating the 34th victim. Salvaging what is left of the Conception is second.
To date, the names of 22 of the 34 victims have been released. They ranged in age from 16 to 62 — 21 of whom were women and 13 of whom were men, according to Sheriff Bill Brown. He also said the majority of the passengers were visiting from Northern California, but others came from China, Japan, India, and Singapore.
More specific information about the disaster’s timing was released at Tuesday’s County Board of Supervisors meeting. The first Mayday call was revived at 3:14 a.m., the fire was out by 5:23 a.m., and the boat had sunk by 7:20 a.m. the morning of September 2. The Conception was 26 miles from Ventura and 22 miles from Santa Barbara at the time of the Mayday call.
“Unfortunately, we’re getting better at responding to these tragedies,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said at Tuesday’s meeting.