Maritime-disaster trial attorneys from Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky (SMBB) and Panish Shea & Boyle LLP (PSB) announced yesterday it had filed in federal court wrongful death and survival action claims on behalf of three passengers and one crewmember killed in the Labor Day 2019 MV Conception commercial dive-boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.

The filings assert that the massive inferno, likely caused by an unsafe lithium-ion-battery charging station, was foreseeable and preventable in part due to the failure to have a mandatory overnight safety watch.

Announced by attorneys Robert J. Mongeluzzi and Jeffrey P. Goodman of Philadelphia's SMBB, along with Robert Glassman of Los Angeles-based PSB, the filings (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California: No: 2:19-cv-07693 PA (MRWx), which include claims for punitive damages, were filed on behalf of:

  • Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31, of Norwalk, Conn., and her husband, Kaustbh Nirmal, 33.
  • Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley, Calif.
  • Alexandra "Allie" Kurtz, 26, an Illinois native who moved to California.

Yesterday's filing was an answer to the complaint filed by Conception's owners, Truth Aquatics Inc., Glen Richard Fritzler and Dana Jeanne Fritzler, individually and as trustees of the Fritzler Family Trust, as well as a claim by the victims. The law firms said that the claimants were among 34 individuals that were asleep below deck, directly beneath the heavily-used battery charging station in the galley. Due to the vessel's inadequate life-safety system design, including woeful means of ingress and egress, the victims were trapped and unable to escape when the fire erupted about 3:15 a.m., the firms said.

The filings document that the 75-foot, 41-year-old vessel was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight "roving" safety watch and failure to provide a safe means for storing and charging lithium-ion batteries.

On Sept. 5, about three days after the fire, lawyers for the vessel's owner filed for protection under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.

Mongeluzzi, a co-founder of SMBB, said at a news conference announcing the filing, that the "defendants killed these victims by breaking the law and failing to have a roving night watch whose job was to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred. Rather than mourn those whose lives they took with their failure to obey the law, they lawyered up and mercilessly filed an action to limit their liability before many of the bodies of these victims were even recovered. We will demolish their frivolous limitation of liability claim and hold them accountable for the outrageous harm they have caused."

"Lithium-ion batteries pose an extreme fire risk," said Goodman, a partner at SMBB. "Vessel owners and operators need to take safety precautions to ensure that a fire doesn't start, spread, and kill. Given the lax safety policies and safety enforcement at Truth Aquatics, it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck.   We fully expect this litigation will put Truth Aquatics out of business and send a message to the maritime industry that safety must always come before profits."

Glassman of PSB, added, that "the owners of the Conception were responsible for providing a safe, seaworthy vessel and failed to do so. In the aftermath of this tragedy, all deserve to know what went fatally wrong and that our justice system works in holding accountable those responsible for the wrongful deaths of 34 people. Through discovery, we intend to determine, for instance, why the Conception had non-compliant escape hatches in the event of an emergency, among what appears to be a litany of safety lapses."

Past major maritime disaster cases for SMBB and PSB range from duck boats on lakes and rivers to cruise ships at sea. SMBB most recently represented numerous victims of the 2018 Branson, Mo., duck boat disaster that resulted in 17 deaths. In that case the firm said it successfully argued that the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act did not apply to the boat's owner.