LOS ANGELES—One of the worst disasters in modern California history has brought a search for blame as investigators decide whether a crime occurred aboard the Conception scuba diving boat that burned in September.
“When you have this type of significant tragedy, it screams out for an investigation of possible involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide,” Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said.
The investigation into the Sept. 2 fire aboard the dive boat has yet to shed light on what ignited the fire that killed 34 people trapped below deck in the middle of the night. The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report said all six crew members were sleeping when the fire broke out.
That would violate Coast Guard regulations requiring a roving night watch and could trigger charges under what’s known as the federal seaman’s manslaughter statute, which carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison per count if a captain or crew member is convicted of negligence or misconduct.
Unintentional deaths in infernos ashore often lead to involuntary manslaughter charges that requires showing someone acted with gross negligence, meaning they didn’t use caution and took risks a reasonable person would not have taken under the same circumstances.
However, the little-used boating manslaughter law only requires showing the simple negligence that’s required in injury lawsuits, meaning someone should have recognized the risk and acted differently.
While defense attorneys might try to blame insufficient government regulations or shoddy inspections, it wouldn’t necessarily absolve the captain or crew, said Carolyn Ramsey, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “The captain is responsible for keeping the boat in a safe condition and providing ways of escape and rescue in the case of a fire.”
The captain also could be criminally liable for crew actions that caused deaths, Ramsey said. Executives of the boat company could be charged if prosecutors can show fraud was involved.
In their favor, Coast Guard inspection records show the boat passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations.
A lawsuit filed recently by a crew member, Ryan Sims, who broke his leg when he jumped from the upper deck to escape the flames, said the boat was unsafe and improperly maintained.
“The boat is unseaworthy by nature because it caught fire and sank,” Sim’s attorney, Kurt Arnold, said.