Home Wrongful Death Lawsuits Santa Barbara boat fire: Captain won’t face manslaughter charge

Santa Barbara boat fire: Captain won’t face manslaughter charge

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A large memorial to the 34 people who died in the 2019 Conception dive boat tragedy was created at the Santa Barbara Harbor. A federal judge has tossed out a “seaman’s manslaughter” charge against the captain of the Santa Barbara-based vessel, which caught fire and sank three years ago to the day.

A large memorial to the 34 people who died in the 2019 Conception dive boat tragedy was created at the Santa Barbara Harbor. A federal judge has tossed out a “seaman’s manslaughter” charge against the captain of the Santa Barbara-based vessel, which caught fire and sank three years ago to the day.

Noozhawk.com

A federal judge has tossed out a “seaman’s manslaughter” charge against the captain of the Santa Barbara-based Conception dive boat, which caught fire and sank three years ago to the day, killing 34 people trapped in a below-deck bunk room.

The decision Thursday by Judge George Wu of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California turned on the distinction between “gross negligence” and “negligence” in deciding whether the criminal charge applies to Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, who was at the helm of the vessel at the time of the tragedy.

Attorneys for Boylan argued that to be charged with seaman’s manslaughter, prosecutors had to show that the veteran skipper was guilty of gross negligence, even though the wording of the federal statutes only references “misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties.”

The Conception was one of three vessels in the Truth Aquatics fleet, which operated out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

The boat was anchored at Platt’s Harbor off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, during a scuba diving trip when it caught fire.

The blaze spread rapidly and trapped everyone in the bunk room below deck, since the stairs and escape hatch both led to a room that was engulfed in flames, according to investigators.

Five crew members, including Boylan, were asleep in their bunks in the wheelhouse and upper deck at the time of the fire.

When they woke up, they found a fire they could not extinguish, and they could not reach the people below deck, they told investigators.

The five crew members were able to escape the vessel and get help from a boat anchored nearby.

The 33 passengers and one crew member in the bunk room died of smoke inhalation, according to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau.

In December 2020, a federal grand jury handed down the indictments charging Boylan with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter.

A revised complaint filed in July of this year changed that to a single count of manslaughter, in response to the defendant’s argument that all the deaths stemmed from a single incident and did not constitute separate crimes.

Prosecutors filed a motion arguing against throwing out the seaman’s manslaughter charge, which carries a 10-year prison sentence upon conviction. They cited numerous legal precedents, and asserted that the plain language of the law made the charge appropriate.

“Every appellate court to have addressed the defendant’s argument has rejected it, reasoning that (the law) means what it says: simple negligence is sufficient for a criminal conviction,” Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie S. Chiristensen said in the motion.

But Wu was unpersuaded, ruling that decisions in other cases led him to side with Boylan’s attorneys.

“(The) defendant has presented persuasive reasons for why the statute should be read to require gross negligence as an element necessary for conviction (and indictment), and the government’s reasons to the contrary do not convince the court otherwise,” Wu said in his ruling.

The charge was dismissed “without prejudice,” giving prosecutors the ability to refile charges.

“The United States Attorney’s Office will seek authorization from the Justice Department to appeal this order,” Thom Mrozek, director of media relations for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, told Noozhawk on Friday.

Boylan is specifically accused of failing to have a night watch or roving patrol at the time of the fire, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard; failing to conduct sufficient fire drills; and failing to conduct sufficient crew training.

Boylan had worked for the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, since 1983, and became a captain there in 1985, according to the company website.

Federal safety officials concluded that the failure of Truth Aquatics to provide effective safety oversight was the probable cause of the vessel catching fire and sinking.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the failings included the company’s decision not to have a roving patrol, as required.

That failure, the board decided, allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow undetected.

Investigative reports released about 10 days after the fire revealed every crew member was asleep at the time the fire broke out, and documents released recently said that a galleyhand saw sparks when he plugged in his phone before going to sleep the morning of the fire.

The cause of the fire itself is unknown, but there has been scrutiny on the vessel’s area for charging electronic devices such as phones, underwater cameras and lights.

The wreckage of the Conception was recovered from the seafloor and examined as part of the investigations being conducted by multiple agencies.

Investigators served search warrants to Truth Aquatics shortly after the fire, and toured the company’s other two vessels, including the one with a similar floor plan to the Conception.

Families of the victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Truth Aquatics, and a surviving crew member has sued for negligence and damages, according to court records.

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