Wrongful Death Claims Have Been Filed For 4 People Who Died In The Conception Boat Fire

A display at the news conference announcing the claims included photographs of victims Yulia Krashennaya (left) and married couple Kaustubh Nirmal and Sanjeeri Deopujari. (Elly Yu/LAist)

The families of four people who died in last year's Conception dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara have filed wrongful death claims against the vessel's owners.

In federal court filings Monday, the families' lawyers allege boat owner Truth Aquatics violated a number of Coast Guard regulations, including not having a "roving" safety watchman. The fire killed 34 people on Labor Day.

"[That's] a federal law, which requires that someone be up at night, patrolling the vessel," said Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing the families. "It is to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred."

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board said no one was standing watch when the fire broke out in the middle of the night.

The filings also allege the vessel failed to have safe methods of storing and charging lithium ion batteries, and had insufficient emergency exits.

"Failure to have redundancy — different means to get out — gave the victims trapped below deck no way to get out of their bunks, no way to get free of this fire, and resulted in 34 horrific, agonizing deaths of the victims," said Jeff Goodman, another attorney representing the families.

The claims were filed on behalf of Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31, of Norwalk, Connecticut, and her husband, Kaustubh Nirmal, 33, of New York; Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley, and crew member Alexandra "Allie" Kurtz, 26, an Illinois native who had moved to California.

AN ATTEMPT TO LIMIT LIABILITY WITH AN OLD LAW

The claims come in response to a lawsuit Truth Aquatics filed a few days after the tragedy in an attempt to protect itself from paying damages. It cited an 1851 law, which allows a company to avoid financial liability if it can prove it was not at fault for a maritime accident.

"We're saying we are going to defeat you in this ... action and hold you accountable, Mongeluzzi said.

Truth Aquatics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite its efforts to limit its liability, Truth Aquatics is already facing two lawsuits stemming from the fire.

A crew member who survived, Ryan Sims, alleges in a lawsuit filed Sept. 12 that the Conception's owners were negligent in their failure to properly train crew members, give adequate safety and medical equipment and provide safety rules, among other claims.

Christine Dignam, whose husband, Justin Dignam, died in the fire, sued in November, claiming the boat was unsafe.

EXEMPT FROM TOUGHER SAFETY RULES

The Conception was among more than 100 California boats exempted from strict U.S. Coast Guard rules designed to improve passenger safety during emergencies, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The paper found that 11 boats classified solely for diving — including eight in California — were given special exemptions from 1996 safety standards. Those rules were prompted by a number of fires and other accidents that had killed dozens in the previous 30 years.

The grandfathering provision meant those boats didn't have to make changes such as adding larger escape hatches and enhanced fire prevention systems, the Times reported.

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) told the paper in a statement that Congress "must eliminate the hazards posed by boats grandfathered in under outdated safety regulations."

The Conception disaster brought the Coast Guard's oversight under close scrutiny.

The Times reported in November that the Coast Guard repeatedly ignored National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve fire safety measures for small passenger boats for two decades.

Brownley and two other members of Congress have introduced legislation to require dive boats to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems and create mandatory safety rules for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries.

Allie Kurtz, a crew member, who died in the fire. (Elly Yu/LAist)

THE COAST GUARD IS REPORTEDLY CONSIDERING SOME SAFETY UPGRADES

The Coast Guard is considering some new safety regulations, according to two local dive boat operators who have spoken with agency officials.

One big change under consideration: People would no longer be allowed to sleep side-by-side in one bed.

People often sleep next to each other on boats that offer a "double-bunk." Ken Kollwitz, the owner of Channel Island Dive Adventures, told KPCC/LAist the Coast Guard considers that arrangement a safety risk because the beds are against a wall, making it difficult for the person closest to the wall to exit in an emergency.

The Coast Guard is also considering a rule that would require dive boats to have more staff awake when docked or at anchor, according to Kollwitz and Ted Cumming, owner of Cal Boat Diving.

While current regulations require just one crew member to be awake at night, the Coast Guard may now require a captain and a deckhand to be awake at night, Kollwitz said.

The Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment on Kollwitz and Cumming's remarks.

The NTSB has repeatedly called on the Coast Guard to require small vessels to conduct regular inspections and report maintenance and repair needs for all of a boat's systems — including the hull and mechanical and electrical operations, the L.A. Times reported. The agency argues this would improve safety on boats between Coast Guard inspections, which occur every one to two years, according to the Times.

But the paper reported that the Coast Guard has pushed back on the recommendation, calling it "unnecessarily burdensome and duplicative of existing requirements."

Emily Elena Dugdale contributed to this report.