LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Families of the victims who died in a Labor Day dive boat disaster off the Ventura coast were blindsided by a lawsuit filed this week by the owner of the vessel.
Thirty-four people were killed and five crew members escaped when a blaze broke out on the charter boat Conception, located near Santa Cruz Island, Monday morning.
Three days after the boat burned and sank into the Pacific, the vessel's owner, Truth Aquatics, filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for help blocking victims' families from filing lawsuits and limiting how much can be paid out.
Attorney Jeffrey Goodman, who specializes in deadly transportation accidents, called the move "heartless."
"The filing that we have read today is about anything other than actually finding the truth. It is about protecting money. It is not about protecting people," Goodman said. "I think it is heartless, it is senseless and it is unnecessary."
A federal law around since the Civil War and used by the owners of the Titanic protects boat owners from massive payouts if they can prove the boat was safe and the crew was well-trained when it left port. Under the law if there is a disaster, the captain is blamed.
Owners Glen and Dana Fritzler said the crew tried to save people and they grieve for the loss of life.
"A lot of these customers that come out with us are like family," Glen Fritzler said. "A lot of them that were on that particular voyage had been coming out with us for 20 or 30 years."
Jonathan Hall, owner of the Deep Blue SCUBA and Swim Center in Long Beach, told CBS2/KCAL9 he's been on the Conception numerous times and always felt safe, calling it "one of the best operations on the West Coast" and "a shining example of the best dive boat experience."
The law used by Truth Aquatics gives boat owners six months to file for protection.
But Goodman says the lawsuit was a cruel move that came too soon — forcing families planning funerals to find lawyers quickly.
"It is a procedurally abusive tactic that they took," he said, adding, "They took it in an effort to deny victims the ability to actually come forward, bring their claims and be heard in court."
The owners say they have been in business for 45 years and never had anything like this happen. They say they are cooperating with the NTSB investigation and that they, too, want answers.
A preliminary report into the cause of the fire is expected to be released next week.
for more features.