On the afternoon of November 6th, 2023, a federal court jury in Los Angeles found Jerry Nehl Boylan, the captain of the M/V CONCEPTION, guilty of gross negligence in the tragic maritime incident that claimed the lives of 34 individuals.
The M/V CONCEPTION, a 75-foot vessel, caught fire on Monday, September 2, 2019 while anchored. The fire swiftly engulfed the boat, resulting in its sinking and the tragic loss of 34 lives. Five crew members, including Boylan, managed to escape and survive.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors presented evidence and contended that Boylan, displayed negligence by failing to initiate a night watch or roving patrol, insufficient fire drills, poor crew training, and neglected to provide firefighting instructions or utilize available firefighting equipment. This evidence highlighted a series of failures on the part of Captain Boylan that significantly contributed to this tragedy. Boylan, who was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its passengers, and its crew, has been found guilty of his failures.
The jury concluded that his misconduct, gross negligence, and lack of attention to his responsibilities directly resulted in the loss of life. These failures also included his decision to abandon ship rather than attempt to rescue passengers.
Also known as “Seaman’s Manslaughter” (codified under Title 18 of the United States Code), the statute criminalizes misconduct or negligence that results in deaths involving vessels (ships and boats) on waters in the jurisdiction of the United States.
The statute exposes three groups to criminal liability:
• Ship’s officers, such as captains, engineers, and pilots.
• Those having responsibility for the vessel’s condition, such as owners, charterers, and inspectors.
• Corporate management.
When the fire erupted, possibly originating in a trash can, pandemonium broke out among Boylan’s inexperienced and poorly trained crew. Amid the chaos, it was reported that a crew member twice passed by a 50-foot fire hose without using it.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that Truth Aquatics, Inc., the owner and operator of the M/V CONCEPTION, failed to effectively supervise the vessel and crew operations. This lack of oversight allowed the fire to escalate, ultimately resulting in the tragic incident. The NTSB also pointed out the absence of smoke detection in all living spaces and inadequate emergency escape plans as contributing factors to the significant loss of life.
In his defense, Boylan’s legal team placed blame on the vessel’s owner for not mandating night patrols or fire training. They also argued that he issued a distress call before leaping overboard when he believed he couldn’t survive.
Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, emphasized the significance of proper training and diligence.
“Let this tragedy serve as a lesson to anyone in command of a vessel carrying vulnerable passengers that proper training, diligence, and life-saving measures are essential to protect those under one’s care,” Alway stated.
Boylan’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for February 8, 2024, and he is currently out on a $75,000 bond. Boylan, who did not testify, will maintain his freedom until his sentencing by U.S. District Judge George Wu. He potentially faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison.
Boylan, who was 66 years old at the time, awoke amidst the smoke and flames. He then issued a mayday call and leaped overboard, actions that prosecutors argued amounted to him abandoning his vessel. After his departure, the 34 individuals confined in the windowless bunk room survived for several minutes, but they were trapped with no means of escape since the stairs and escape hatch were blocked by the spreading flames.
United States Attorney Martin Estrada expressed his hope that the verdict would provide some comfort and closure to the families of the victims.
“This ship captain’s inexcusable cowardice led to the loss of 34 lives on Labor Day in 2019. As determined by the jury, this tragedy could have been prevented if Mr. Boylan had simply fulfilled the responsibilities entrusted to him,” said Estrada.
U. S. Coast Guard Investigative Service Director Jeremy Gauthier hailed the guilty verdict as a testament to the pursuit of justice and a way to honor the memory of those who were lost. He commended the collaborative efforts of multiple agencies in uncovering crucial evidence. In response to the tragic incident, the U. S. Coast Guard has enforced stricter regulations, and an increasing number of vessels are implementing mandatory overnight watch duties.