U.S. Coast Guard and Santa Barbara sheriff officials believe they have recovered 33 of the 34 bodies from those who died in a boat fire off the coast of the southern California island of Santa Cruz. The victims slept under 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 saved 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 design had to be reviewed annually by the Coast Guard and, according to US Coast Guard captain Monica Rochester, fully met legal requirements. She added that with the cessation of rescue efforts, the crews could focus on "why this incident happened and what we can learn from this tragedy."
Authorities believe that the flames moved quickly through the 75-foot ship, blocking a narrow staircase and an emergency hatch that led to the upper decks, leaving sleeping passengers with 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, otherwise they would have died.
Maritime and constitutional law
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but litigation will likely result in litigation and the laws on maritime injuries 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 from the United States, state law supplements federal maritime law to remedy the situation and state law on unjustified death applies. In this case, it would be the Californian law on unlawful death and possibly the general liability of the carriers, according to which the families of the victims should take legal action.
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, in accordance with the federal law on high seas death. However, the damage in these claims may be limited and the plaintiffs cannot claim for things like loss of society, loss of consortium, or punitive damages.
Incorrect deaths after boat accidents can be legally complex. Talk to an experienced lawyer if you have any questions.