One legal expert says the owners of the Conception — through their insurance provider — are now rushing to limit their liability in the wake of the vessel’s catching fire and sinking last week, killing 34 people onboard.

A preliminary report from the US National Transportation Safety Board released last week stated that none of the crew members aboard the dive boat Conception were awake at the time the vessel caught fire.

John “Jack” Hickey is an expert on maritime law, having more than three decades of experience in the industry. He spent the first 17 years of his career representing cruise lines, and says:

“This is a boating case governed by the general maritime law of the United States. The owners have now rushed into Federal Court and have filed a limitation proceeding, a case under an antiquated 1851 Federal Statute, the Limitation of Liability Act, which if applicable would limit the liability of the owner to the value of the vessel. The vessel was destroyed and so the value is zero. But clearly a major exception applies here and these entities are not entitled to limitation.

“We see from the NTSB preliminary report that there was no continuous night watchman and probably no operational smoke detectors. These are issues which the owners and the master of the vessel certainly should have known about. But now the owners — through their insurance company’s retained lawyers — have rushed into court to tell these families that they want to take zero responsibility. This is a shameful tactic.”

The US Coast Guard issued additional safety recommendations last week in the wake of the tragedy, such as limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords. Of that order Hickey says,

“Fire is one of the most if not the most dangerous perils of boats, yachts, and ships. Any vessel with an internal combustion engine contains fuel. And the fuel is in a confined space. And there is no place for people to go. Electronics, especially those with lithium batteries, can ignite or catch fire. That is why electronics should be safe and secured and kept as far away from any fuel source as possible. There should be fireproof bags or boxes for cell phones being recharged on smaller vessels.”

Read the NTSB’s preliminary report here.

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