Family members of victims in fatal California dive boat fire suing Coast Guard

Family members of victims in fatal California dive boat fire suing Coast Guard
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Family members of the 34 people killed in a 2019 dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Coast Guard, alleging it acted “negligently and carelessly” by repeatedly certifying the vessel despite numerous safety violations. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, claims the Coast Guard ignored violations to its “own protocols, procedures, and checklists” on proper vessel design and safety when conducting inspections of the 1981-launched boat, named Conception.

The lawyers for the family members allege in the complaint that the dive boat’s diesel-powered electrical system did not comply with federal standards, noting that “some electrical items in the bunkroom were not composed of UL Boat or Marine cable called for by such standards, but rather of cheap, everyday Romex wire of the kind one would buy at Home Depot.” 

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The complaint also said that fire detection and suppression systems were inadequate and that passenger escape routes were in violation of Coast Guard standards. 

Additionally, the boat’s “salon and all of its furnishings were flammable, including the carpeting on the deck and the acoustic tile on the overhead,” the lawsuit alleged. 

The lawyers wrote that less than a year before the fire, the Coast Guard certified Conception to transport 40 passengers overnight, despite the fact that “her electrical wiring systems, her fire detection and suppression systems and passenger accommodation escape hatch were in open and obvious violation of” federal standards. 

The lawsuit also said that Conception’s sister ship, Vision, also nearly had its own fire in 2018 following an incident with two lithium batteries that were plugged into a power strip on board. 

Jeffrey Goodman, one of the lawyers representing the families, said in a statement Thursday that the “Coast Guard is responsible for ensuring that only properly certified vessels are on the waters.” 

“The Coast Guard has failed in that mission for decades by not enforcing certification requirements and routinely allowing non-compliant and unsafe vessels on the water,” he added.  

He went on to say that “had the Coast Guard properly inspected CONCEPTION, it never would have been certified, never set sail, and these 34 victims would not have lost their lives.” 

When contacted by The Hill, the Coast Guard said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit follows a previous determination by the National Transportation Safety Board that the vessel’s captain, Jerry Boylan, and the boat’s owner,  Truth Aquatics, failed to comply with Coast Guard requirements for a roving watch person to be available while passengers were asleep, as well as other safety requirements. 

Boylan has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of manslaughter for allegedly not having a roving watch person who could have detected and warned of the fire in time to evacuate the boat.