By Don Ford

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Whatever the investigation into the deadly fire that destroyed a dive boat off the Southern California coast finds, the boat’s owners could draw on a 19th century law to keep the victims’ families from seeing any compensation.

The law is called the Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.

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Truth Aquatics, the owner of the Conception Dive Boat., has filed a petition asking a Federal Judge in Los Angeles to eliminate its financial liability to the victims’ families. Maritime attorney John Hillsman says he’s seen this tactic before.

“The principal behind it is when a vessel is involved in a maritime causality, the owners liability is limited to the value of the vessel and it’s pending freight — or money due to the vessel — after the casualty,” explained Hillsman.

The burned hulk of the Conception now lays on the bottom of the Pacific. Truth Aquatics claims in court documents that the value is zero.

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“They will serve summons on all 33 families, in fact all 34 families, because there was a crewman involved in this tragedy, and require them to appear in Admiralty, without a Jury, where the issue of both liability and limitation will be tried before a federal district judge,” said Hillsman.

One of the most famous vessels to use this law for protection was the Titanic. Debris and lifeboats were appraised at approximately $96,000. Nearly 1,500 families had to split that sum. The owners of the Deep Water Horizon also used this law after one of the worst oil spills in history.

“Unfortunately, that’s just a kind of normal cause of action in Maritime Law, and this is the action and advice to us that we need to take,” Truth Aquatics owner Glen Fritzler said during a recent interview.

“The substantive consequence is that you can have the liability of the owner limited — in this instance — to nothing!” said Hillsman.

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It is unclear how many families — if any — have already retained legal counsel.