The 34 people who were sleeping below deck were trapped and killed, while five crew members — the only ones not below deck — survived

By Maria Pasquini
September 06, 2019 05:48 PM

The owners of the California diving boat Conception, which burst into flames on Monday, have taken legal action to try to get ahead of any potential lawsuits filed against them.

On Thursday, attorneys for Truth Aquatics owners Glen Fritzler and Dana Fritzler filed a lawsuit seeking “exoneration from or limitation of liability” regarding the fire, which is believed to have killed all 34 passengers who were sleeping below deck at the time.

The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, which was successfully used by the owners of the Titanic, was designed to encourage shipping businesses, according to NBC News.

In the petition, it was argued that as the vessel burned and sank into the water following the fire, it “had no value at the conclusion of the voyage,” according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.

Therefore, the owners, who have claimed they “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy,” are asking a judge to “invoke the benefits of exoneration,” or to limit their liability to equal the current value of the vessel, which is “zero,” should a judge find them at fault for the fire.

In the petition, lawyers for the boat owners claimed that while there have yet to be any lawsuits filed against Truth Aquatics, they have received a “written notice” of a possible lawsuit.

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As part of the lawsuit, surviving crew members and families of the deceased will have “not more than six months” to file their own lawsuits.

A maritime law director at Tulane University told NBC News that while “it seems like a pretty heartless thing to do,” this kind of legal action isn’t unusual and is often prompted by insurance companies.

“They’re just protecting their position,” Professor Martin J. Davies told the outlet. “It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one … The optics are awful.”

Truth Aquatics did not immediately return PEOPLE’s requests for comment.

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In total, 39 people — 33 passengers and six crew members — were aboard the boat when it erupted in flames off the coast of Santa Cruz Island just after 3 a.m. on Monday. The 34 people who were sleeping below deck were trapped and killed, while five crew members — the only ones not below deck — survived.

Coast Guard Lt. Zach Farrell said all but one of those left trapped by flames had been recovered by Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported.

“I’m numb,” said Glen Fritzler in a phone interview with Spectrum News 1 on Tuesday. “There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades.”

“Of all of the years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this,” Fritzler added. “It’s a complete tragedy. It’s horrible.”

AP/Shutterstock

On Friday, Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said that a preliminary investigation showed that the victims of the fire likely died of smoke inhalation before being burned.

Brown also released the names of nine victims, whose next of kin they had been able to notify.

Authorities from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the cause of the fire.

“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said in a Thursday press conference.

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