Four more lawsuits were announced Monday in the deadly fire of the Conception dive boat off the coast of Ventura County in California, claiming that The charging stations of lithium-ion batteries were to blame.
The litigation was announced at a morning press conference at the Los Angeles office of the Panish law firm, Shea & Boyle. The Los Angeles-based firm has partnered with maritime lawyers from Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, based in Philadelphia.
“Today we have filed claims on behalf of four of the victims who were killed in this terrible tragedy. They are Allie Kurtz, Yulia Krashennaya, Kaustbh Nirmal and Sanjeeri Deopujari. Their families have asked us to do two things: find out what happened and make sure it never happens again, "said Robert Mongeluzzi, founder of the company.
The risk of fire with these charging stations, particularly in old wooden and fiberglass ships is a continuing danger, said Mongeluzzi. The claims allege that the fire of the boat began at or near the kitchen, which is where these lithium ion battery charging strips would have been located.
The lawyers have not been able to see any evidence of the ship's fire because the ship is in possession of the National Transportation Safety Board. However, there is circumstantial evidence that points to the cause of these charging stations, Mongeluzzi said. The kitchen is also above the sleeping bunk beds, Mongeluzzi said.
The lawyers also reported news reports and other information they have seen about a fire aboard Vision, a vessel similar to Conception, a year earlier. According to reports, that fire involved an overloaded cell phone. The fire ignited quickly and the device was thrown overboard, said Jeffrey Goodman, a partner at the Philadelphia firm.
The fire was not reported to the United States Coast Guard, Goodman said. If a fire causes at least $ 75,000 in damages, the Coast Guard must be reported, Goodman said. A cell phone would not have cost so much, he said.
Goodman said that fire-resistant bags can be purchased for such personal devices, as well as for diving equipment.
The lawsuits were filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.
The ship was out for a Labor Day weekend dive trip off Santa Cruz Island when a fire broke out before dawn on September 2. Of the 39 people on board, only five survived. The five survivors were crew members. A crew member and 33 passengers died in the fire.
The six crew members and the 33 passengers were asleep when the fire broke out, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The report did not indicate what caused the fire. The agency is one of several investigating the incident.
U.S. Coast Guard authorities said Concepción had to have a crew member awake and designated as an itinerant patrol when passenger berths were occupied. The Coast Guard launched its largest possible investigation following the disaster.
The lawyers said they had spoken with previous captains of the Conception and others who had ventured aboard the ship, Mongeluzzi said. His statements show a pattern of the Conception that does not have a roaming patrol required, said Mongeluzzi.
"This has become more important in the last decade as electronic devices on ships have proliferated, just like on airplanes," said Mongeluzzi.
Ship fire in California:Authorities say the victims probably died from smoke inhalation, not from burns
He said the aircraft industry has done a good job of addressing these technological advances with its charging stations. Mongeluzzi said the maritime industry has not been able to keep up with the technology.
La Concepcion was owned by Truth Aquatics and operated from the port of Santa Barbara, where an improvised monument emerged after the deadly fire.
Three days after the fire broke out, Truth Aquatics's lawyers, owner Glen Fritzler and his wife Dana filed a petition in federal court to avoid any civil action. He cited a maritime law of 1851 that could limit his liability.
"To escape responsibility, they have to prove that the ship was not suitable for sailing and that they had no prior knowledge of what could happen," Mongeluzzi said. "We will demolish their action to limit liability and defenses and hold them accountable on behalf of these victims."
Monday's litigation was filed in response to Truth Aquatics' request.
Other similar claims have also been filed. The widow of a passenger and a crew member who broke her leg to get safe filed claims that challenge the request for responsibility.
Professor, biologist, nurse: These are some of the victims of the ship fire in California.
Russell Brown, a Truth Aquatics lawyer, did not comment on the new litigation when he arrived Monday. Brown, a lawyer at Gordon & Rees, said he didn't receive the presentations or read them.
Conception was one of three ships in the Truth Aquatics fleet. The operations in the other two, Vision and Truth, were suspended approximately one month after Conception burned and sank.
Federal investigators could be seen touring the Vision in the immediate days after the disaster to get an idea of what might have happened.
Federal law required that Conception have two exit routes for bunk beds under cover, Goodman said. Unfortunately, he said, both led to the kitchen.
One of those exit routes was a hatch on a berth, Mongeluzzi said.
"It's a ridiculous way of possible escape," said Mongeluzzi.
Follow Megan Diskin on Twitter: @megandiskin