U.S. Coast Guard and Santa Barbara Sheriff's officials believe they have recovered 33 of the 34 bodies of those who died in a boat fire off the coast of Southern California's Santa Cruz Island. The victims were sleeping below deck of the commercial dive boat Conception when the fire erupted around 3:30 a.m. Monday morning. Five crew members, including the captain, were on the vessel's third deck and were able to jump off before being rescued, while another crew member below deck perished.
A team with the National Transportation Safety Board began investigating the fire, along with Coast Guard officials. The Conception was required to be inspected by the Coast Guard annually and was in full compliance with regulatory requirements, according to U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester. She added that with rescue efforts now ceased, crews could focus on "why this incident occurred and what we can learn from this tragedy."
Authorities believe that flames moved quickly through the 75-foot vessel, blocking a narrow stairway and escape hatch leading to the upper decks, leaving sleeping passengers below 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 or else they would have died.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but there will likely be some litigation following the deadly fire, and maritime injury laws may differ from those on land. Liability for wrongful death under general maritime law depends where the facts causing death occurred. If the deaths occurred within three nautical miles of the United States, state law supplements federal maritime law to provide a remedy, and state wrongful death statutes apply. In this case, it would be California's wrongful death laws, and possibly common carrier liability, under which victims' families would need to file suit.
If, however, the deaths occurred farther out at sea, a "decedent's spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative" can sue the crew and even the boat itself under the federal Death on the High Seas Act. Damages in those claims, however, may be limited, and plaintiffs can't recover for things like loss of society, loss of consortium, or punitive damages.
Wrongful death claims following boating accidents can be legally complex. Talk to an experienced wrongful death attorney if you have questions.