Coast Guard Sued by Families of the 34 Victims in Conception Dive Boat Fire

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Ventura County Fire Department firefighters respond to fire aboard Conception dive boat
In this Sept. 2, 2019, photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a fire aboard the Conception dive boat in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP, File)

The families of the 34 people who died in the Conception dive boat fire off the California coast in 2019 are suing the U.S. Coast Guard for allowing the tour boat to operate despite having faulty electrical and safety systems, the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court for the Central District of California on Wednesday, argues that the Coast Guard is liable for the deaths of the 33 passengers and one crew member because it "failed to perform adequate inspections, allowing Conception to sail with these hazardous and ultimately deadly conditions."

The dive boat was anchored about 20 miles southwest of Santa Barbara, off Santa Cruz Island, when it caught fire on Sept. 2, 2019, at around 3 a.m. A National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident suggested that the ship's electrical system or charging batteries onboard the ship were likely causes of the fire.

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However, the report also faulted the crew for not setting a roving patrol and the ship for having inadequate fire-detection systems and a design in which escape hatches exited to the same space. In the case of the Conception, both escape routes led to a fire-filled space, trapping the passengers below deck.

The lawsuit, citing the Suits in Admiralty Act, argues that the blame for these shortcomings lies with the Coast Guard since the service inspected and certified the ship "even though her electrical wiring and systems, her fire detection and suppression systems, her passenger-accommodation escape hatch, her watch logs and training logs were in open and obvious violation."

Typically, private citizens can't sue a branch of the armed services, although there are limited exceptions.

The complaint notes that after the fire, the Conception's sister ship, the Vision, was inspected by the Coast Guard. There, it "discovered numerous glaring deficiencies in [the ship's] wiring and electrical systems, fire detection and suppression systems, and passenger accommodation escape hatch."

The two ships were owned by the same company and were built and laid out similarly.

"Sadly, certifying non-compliant vessels is commonplace at the Coast Guard," Jeffrey Goodman, one of the lawyers representing the families, said in a statement on the case. "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."

While the Coast Guard did not comment on the lawsuit, a press release put out Thursday said that the branch is starting a program of at-sea safety checks.

The goal is "to bridge gaps that were identified following the fire onboard the passenger vessel Conception which resulted in the tragic deaths of 34 people," Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer, the commander of the Coast Guard district along the Pacific, said in the press release.

In a separate legal action, Jerry Boylan, the Conception's captain, is facing 34 charges of "Seaman's Manslaughter" in federal court. His trial is underway; he has pleaded not guilty, court records show.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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