Tragedy struck Southern California this past Labor Day weekend after Conception—a 75 foot diving boat owned by the company Truth Aquatics—caught fire, killing 34 civilians and crew members.
Now, Truth Aquatics owners Glen and Dana Fritzier are arguing in court that they owe no financial restitution to the survivors or the families of the victims, and they're using an over 150-year-old statute to do so.
Enacted when sailing was much more perilous, the Shipowner's Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 said that ship owners can only pay up to a ship's value in restitution to victims in the case of an accident. Because Conception wasn't salvageable, the Fritziers are arguing that the ship's value is $0, and that they're subsequently obligated to pay nothing.
The defense is often used in nautical accidents, most notably by the White Star Line after the Titanic tragedy in April of 1912.
As a result of the Limitation of Liability Act, White Star Line was only obligated to pay up to the value of whatever didn't go down with the ship, which in Titanic's case was the lifeboats. Over 1500 passengers died on the ship after operators were ordered to sail at top speed, subsequently hitting an iceberg at night.
While investigation into the Conception fire is still underway, some safety concerns have reportedly already been found.
With communications more streamlined and fatal sailing accidents more rare than in 1851, people are saying that the Limitation of Liability Act is outdated.
And maybe it's time to reevaluate its relevance.
Though many factors affect who will be held liable, some are calling for the owners to pay some sort of restitution.
Litigation regarding the tragedy is expected to continue for some time.