First Lawsuit Filed in Connection with Conception Dive Boat Fire

The wreck of the Conception (Santa Barbara County FD)

Published Nov 13, 2019 8:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

The widow of one of the passengers aboard the ill-fated dive boat Conception has filed the first wrongful death lawsuit against operator Truth Aquatics in connection with the fatal fire aboard the vessel on September 2. The disaster claimed the lives of all 33 passengers and one crewmember, making it one of the deadliest American maritime casualties in decades. 

Christine Dignam, the wife of Conception passenger Justin Dignim, filed a counterclaim Monday contesting an admiralty suit that Truth Aquatics filed in the immediate aftermath of the sinking. The company's original suit attempts to limit any damages to the value of the vessel immediately following the fire, assessed at $0.00. The vessel burned to the waterline and sank, and Truth Aquatics' insurer considers it a total loss. 

Dignam's countersuit seeks damages for wrongful death, funeral expenses, survival damages and punitive damages in connection with her husband's passing. The suit claims that the crew may not have maintained an anchor watch on the night of the fire; that the escape hatch from the belowdecks berthing area may have been challenging to navigate; and that an onboard electrical charging station for battery-powered devices may have been overloaded. The NTSB is considering the charging station as a possible ignition source, and the U.S. Coast Guard has issued a marine safety bulletin encouraging passenger boat operators to consider limiting the unsupervised use of charging devices and extension cords / power strips aboard their vessels. 

Multiple federal investigations into the casualty are currently under way. The NTSB is the lead agency for the safety inquiry, and the Coast Guard has convened a separate Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) headed by the officer who led the MBI for the loss of the con/ro El Faro. The accident has caught the attention of Congress as well, and the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a hearing to question NTSB and Coast Guard officials about the adequacy of existing safety requirements. Recent Coast Guard inspections had determined that Conception was fully. compliant with all applicable regulations for a Subchapter T passenger vessel, including applicable fire protection requirements.

The Department of Justice, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Coast Guard Investigative Service are conducting a parallel criminal investigation into the circumstances of the fire.