DIVING NEWS

Conception captain charged; Grotto lawsuit settled

Jerry Nehl Boylan, the captain of the Conception dive liveaboard that caught fire in California in September 2019, has been charged with 34 counts of manslaughter – one for each person aboard who died in the blaze.

If found guilty, the 67-year-old could face a maximum 10-year prison sentence applicable on each count. The case will be heard before a federal court.

In October Divernet reported on the USA’s National Transportation Safety Board report on the fire, which held fleet operator Truth Aquatics responsible.

All 33 passengers and one crew-member had been asleep below in a single bunk-room with limited means of escape, while the other five crew, including Boylan, had been asleep above deck.

There had been no roving nightwatch, contrary to US law, and the captain was said to have failed to arrange fire training or evacuation drills.

Prosecutor Nick Hanna, US Attorney for the Central District of California, has stated that the captain “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers” and had been charged on account of his “misconduct, negligence and inattention to his duties”.

The divers were passing the last night of a three-day dive-trip anchored off Santa Cruz Island. When the captain and crew were woken by the fire they tried to rescue them but were soon forced by smoke to evacuate the vessel.

“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive-trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew-member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape,” says the proesecutor’s statement. “The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims.”

2 December 2020

The charges have been brought under a 19th-century law aimed at holding sea captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters to account. The families of all but one of the Conception victims have filed legal claims against Truth Aquatics and its owners Glen & Dana Fritzler, who have also turned to an old maritime law to limit their liability.

*****  MEANWHILE in the US commonwealth island of Saipan in the Pacific, the US District Court for the North Marianas Islands has dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Madelyn Jones, the widow of US diver John Jones.

Details of Jones’ fatal dive as outlined in the lawsuit were reported on DIVERNET in February. The dismissal of the action is understood to have followed a settlement agreed between the parties involved and was delivered “with prejudice”, which means that the suit cannot be brought again.

Jones had been sent by the US Federal Aviation Administration to help rebuild Saipan’s international airport after it suffered typhoon damage. He and a fellow-employee had taken a day off on 18 November, 2018 and booked a dive with two local diving instructors.

According to the lawsuit, neither instructor had asked Jones about his diving experience, warned him about the potential difficulty of the overhead-environment 30m-plus dive at the Grotto site, or obtained his consent to it.

Jones had subsequently run low on air and gone missing. A full-scale six-day search had proved unsuccessful, and he was officially declared dead the following March.

The suit had been brought against instructor Harry Blalock, owner of local dive-centre Axe Murderer Tours; Joe McDoulett, an instructor from the Green Flash dive-centre; and training agency PADI Worldwide and PADI Americas. The defendants had been accused of negligence, wrongful death, breach of the US Consumer Protection Act and, in PADI’s case, vicarious liability, all of which they denied.

Madelyn Jones had been asking for US $75,000 in damages plus costs. The parties must now pay their own legal costs, and the court retains jurisdiction to enforce their agreement.