LOS ANGELES -- The owners of the dive boat where 34 people perished in a fire off Southern California filed a lawsuit Thursday to head off potentially costly litigation.
Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned the Conception, filed the action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability.
No cause for the fire has been determined.
The time-tested legal maneuver has been successfully employed by owners of the Titanic and countless other crafts — some as small as Jet Skis — and was widely anticipated by maritime law experts. Still, the speed with which it was filed just three days after the deadly inferno Monday in which all passengers on the boat and one crew member died, struck observers as being in poor taste.
"Filing this quick is quite unusual," said Charles Naylor, who represents victims in maritime law cases. "Frankly, it just seems to disrespect their grief."
Professor Martin J. Davies, the maritime law director at Tulane University, said the cases always follow accidents at sea and always look bad, but are usually initiated by insurance companies to limit losses.
"It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that's what always happens. They're just protecting their position," Davies said. "It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one. ... The optics are awful."
The law has its origins in 18th century England and was designed to encourage the shipping business, Davies said. Every country with a shipping industry has something similar on the books. The U.S. law dates to 1851.
Anyone who can make a claim against the company will be served with notice the company is asserting it is not liable for damages and any victims will have a limited amount of time to challenge that claim.
In order to prevail, the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have to show they were not at fault in the disaster.
They asserted in the suit that they "used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged."
All of those who died were in a bunkroom below the main deck. Officials have said the 33 passengers and one crewmember had no ability to escape the flames. The captain and four crew members above survived, but none of them have spoken publicly about what happened.