California Dive Boat Fire. No new trial

Blockquote LOS ANGELES (CN) — A California dive boat captain who was convicted of seaman’s manslaughter last year over a fire that killed all 33 passengers on board his vessel lost his bid for a new trial on Monday.

U.S. District Judge George Wu denied Jerry Boylan’s request at a brief hearing Monday morning after his attorneys, as well as prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, declined to argue over the judge’s tentativedecision.

Boylan, 70, faces up to 10 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of gross negligence that caused the deaths of the people who died on the Labor Day 2019 diving trip off the coast of Santa Barbara.

The jurors concluded in 2023 that he was responsible for the worst disaster in California maritime history because he didn’t have a roving patrol on board during the night who could’ve spotted the fire before it entrapped the passengers and one crew member sleeping below the deck, and because he didn’t train his inexperienced crew how to use the firefighting equipment on the 75-foot boat, the “Conception.”

In his request for a new trial, Boylan argued that the judge erred in the instructions he gave the jurors about a lesser-included offense ahead of their deliberations. He also claimed that a prosecution witness — a former crew member of the “Conception” who briefly worked under Boylan in 2019 — had lied when he told the jury he quit working on the dive boat because of Boylan’s lax attitude toward safety on board the “Conception.”

Wu, however, saw no merit in either argument.

As for the jury instruction, the judge conceded that in retrospect, he shouldn’t have included the lesser-included offense instruction — which gave the jury the option to convict Boylan of only a misdemeanor and which his attorneys had asked for toward the end of the trial — at all.

The problem, the judge said in agreeing with the prosecution, was that it is possible to commit seaman’s manslaughter without committing the lesser misdemeanor violation — which pertains to negligence while operating a vessel — because operating the vessel isn’t a necessary element of seaman’s manslaughter. For instance, the fire could have happened while the boat was docked with the passengers sleeping below deck.

However, Wu determined that the jury instruction error made no difference in Boyan’s request for a new trial.

“Because the court now concludes that the jury never should have been so instructed, and because defendant was only convicted of the original charge under 18 U.S.C. § 1115 anyway, any error defendant perceives in the manner of the court’s lesser-included instruction is beside the point,” he said.

With respect to the testimony of the former crew member, Brian Priddin, the judge rejected Boylan’s argument that this witness created the false impression that he resigned from Truth Aquatics, the company that owned the “Conception” and two other dive boats, because he didn’t want to work for a business that created a significant risk to the passengers’ safety.

According to Boylan, based on a complaint Priddin made to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before, the real reason he quit was over the way the company disposed of sewage.

Wu, however, didn’t see this as conflicting with Priddin’s trial testimony because he indicated during the trial that there had been more than one reason for him to resign.

“Contrary to defendant’s argument, Priddin never communicated to anyone, pre-trial, that the only reason he quit his job with Truth Aquatics was because of a concern about improper sewage dumping,” the judge said. “The closest he ever got to suggesting that the lack of a roving patrol was not one of the reasons he quit was during his interview with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and associated investigators when he told them that the ‘strange’ feeling he got about there apparently not being a night-watch was when he ‘had already decided to quit, really, and that’s my last trip.’”

The judge said that he didn’t interpret that discussion “as clearly indicating that this reason did not then become another reason he took into consideration in ultimately quitting.”

Boylan is scheduled to be sentenced May 2 before Wu.


I feel bad for him. It’s hard to know better when that’s the only place he ever worked.


He’s 70 years old, and a first time offender. He isn’t going to be running a boat again. He’s been put through several years of hell, and he’s almost certainly broke. His life expectancy is probably quite short. His sentence should be quite lenient.

Not to mention, that he is the sole scapegoat for the owner, the entire California dive boat industry, and the incompetent USCG small vessel Inspection system.

We should know the sentence in a few days.


Couldn’t recall what happened to the captain of the Zim Mexico III, found this - good article here about the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act.

Capt Schroder served 4 months jail time.


His life has been shattered and his physical appearance reflects the heavy price he’s already paid. Given that he was probably never been exposed to the concept of night watches in his entire career, I hope there’s no pressure from the victims’ survivors to push for what would effectively be a death sentence.

Last I heard, the victim’s families were on the war path. They want “justice,” that is to hang him high, at least 34 times.

The court will probably use the federal sentencing guidelines as an upper limit, and hand down an even more lenient sentence. There will be howls of outrage from the families, and some of the press. There will probably be howls of outrage from some of us that the sentence is too stiff.

Is that really the problem of the survivors families though? I’d want as much as I could possibly get if I was them.

Yes. He will probably drink himself to death in short order anyways. I always tell new people before I have them take any sort of watch that what the authorities are going to do to you is nothing compared to what you will do to yourself.

The onus is on the companies to provide a safe operating environment. They can always find someone to operate how they want to. The owners should be the ones looking at time.

If I was a family member I would not seek vengeance. Vengeance is a deterrent. It doesn’t bring anyone back.


Captain was sentenced today. 4 years


That’s probably a life sentence unless he gets some sort of early release.

Can’t blame the victims families for feeling the way they do given what happened. A mariner’s worse nightmare.

Good article in the LA Times here:

It was apparently Boylan’s mindset that, based on his experience, the risk from diving operations was the primary concern.

A single line written in the COI notwithstanding it must have made sense to Boylan to shift crew resources to reduce that risk.

To the captains and owners in the dive fleet the low probability / high consequence risk of fire apparently seemed less salient than the risks of a diving accident.


As far as I can tell, if they never worked outside of dive boats they never saw it done any different ever by anyone.

Generally not a legal defense. An entire industry can be found lacking, see e.g. The T.J. Hooper, 60 F.2d 737 (1932).


The T, J. Hooper is my favorite case. Got to admire Learned Hand.

What was USCG’s sentence?
Same as the FAA and the 737 max mess?

Obviously not a legal defense, but I hate the skipper getting all the blame when the entire dive boat industry worked this way and the USCG knew full well and did nothing about it.


He is the scapegoat.

The owner should be sharing his cell.

The local OCMI should be demoted.


The master is always the scapegoat, sometimes deservedly so, but most times there is plenty of blame to pass around.


As usual, when there is an accident the master needs the leave the country

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Thanks, that was a good read.

It’s interesting to note that in no other industry in the US can someone be found guilty of felony manslaughter for simple negligence.

Perhaps it makes sense, at least historically, because of the Master’s exceptional authority and responsibility. I would argue against it though and I think Boylan’s case is a good example of scapegoating.

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