A federal jury ruled Monday that a scuba diving boat captain was criminally negligent in the deaths of 34 people killed in a fire aboard the ship in 2019, the deadliest maritime disaster in history recent United States.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles confirmed that Jerry Boylan was convicted of one count of misconduct or neglect toward a ship’s officer, a pre-Civil War law known colloquially as manslaughter of seafarers and which aimed to hold the captains and crew of steamships responsible for maritime disasters. Boylan was the only person to face criminal charges related to the fire.
He faces 10 years in prison.
The verdict comes more than four years after the September 2, 2019 tragedy, which led to maritime regulatory changes, congressional reform and civil lawsuits.
The Conception was anchored off the Channel Islands, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Santa Barbara, California, when it caught fire before dawn on the last day of a three-day excursion, sinking at less than 30 meters from the shore.
Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died, trapped in a dormitory located below deck. Among the dead were the deckhand, who had landed his dream job; an environmental scientist who did research in Antarctica; a globe-trotting couple; a Singaporean data scientist; and a family of three sisters, their father and his wife.
Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump overboard. Four crew members who joined him also survived.
Although the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, prosecutors and the defense have sought to assign blame throughout the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Boylan failed to provide required roving night watch and never properly trained his team how to fight fires. The lack of roving surveillance allowed the fire to spread undetected through the 23 meter boat.
Boylan’s lawyers sought to shift blame to the boat’s owner, Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba diving boats.
They argued that Fritzler was responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as creating a lax maritime culture they called “the method Fritzler,” in which no captain who worked for him posted a roving watch.
Two to three dozen members of the victims’ families were present each day of the trial in downtown Los Angeles. U.S. District Court Judge George Wu warned them against showing emotion in the courtroom as they watched a 24-second cellphone video showing the final moments of some of their loved ones.
Although the criminal trial has concluded, several civil suits remain pending.
Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under a provision of pre-Civil War maritime law that allowed it to limit its liability to the value of the remains. of the boat, which constituted a total loss.
This tried-and-true legal maneuver was used successfully by the owners of the Titanic and other ships and requires the Fritzlers to demonstrate that they were not at fault.
That case is ongoing, as are others filed by victims’ families against the U.S. Coast Guard for alleged lax enforcement of the roving surveillance requirement.