Duck Boat Victims' Families Seek $100M in Damages

Video still of the Stretch Duck 07's final moments (File image / Youtube)

By The Maritime Executive 07-30-2018 03:15:55

The families of two of the victims of the July 19 duck boat sinking in Branson, Missouri have filed a lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages from Ripley Entertainment, the owner of Ride the Ducks Branson. Ride the Ducks International, Herschend Family Entertainment and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing are also named in the suit. 

Lawyers representing the estates of Ervin Coleman, 76, and Maxwell Ly, 2 contend that the boat's operators were aware of allegedly dangerous defects, but continued to operate them despite warnings. In particular, the suit singles out the vehicles' canopies: lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who won a $17 million settlement for victims after the 2010 duck boat collision in Philadelphia, contends that the operator "made a conscious, intentional decision" not to remove the boats' canopies, despite a previous recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The Board's recommendation followed the 1999 sinking of the duck boat Miss Majestic in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which killed 13 people. In a 2002 accident report, the NTSB concluded that the Miss Majestic's canopy "essentially caged" the passengers within, making escape "extremely difficult." Mongelluzi alleges that the canopy on the Stretch Duck 07 also trapped the passengers within, preventing them from escaping as the boat foundered. 

In its accident report for the Miss Majestic, NTSB also wrote that “unacceptable level of risks to passenger safety continue to exist in these vehicles . . . because the industry has failed to take voluntary action to address [the risk posed by lack of adequate reserve buoyancy].” The agency had called for the immediate installation of floatation systems that would prevent the boats from sinking in the event of flooding. In light of the industry's response, the NTSB called for the Coast Guard to take regulatory action to require greater reserve buoyancy, a development that has not occurred.

As a general rule, federal law prevents the use of NTSB accident reports in civil or criminal litigation, though the Board's factual reports are admissible. Congress created this exclusion in order to maintain the NTSB's independent, fact-finding mission. 

Separately, the lawsuit contends that Ripley was aware of impending severe weather, but chose to run the Stretch Duck 07's tour despite this knowledge. A severe thunderstorm watch was in effect throughout the day of the accident, and it was upgraded to a severe thunderstorm warning about 40 minutes before the sinking. The Stretch Duck 07 foundered and sank during a thunderstorm, with winds of up to 65 mph and wave heights of four feet. 

Based on all of these allegations, the suit accuses Ripley Entertainment of negligence, and it accuses Ride the Ducks International of selling a faulty product (the Stretch Duck 07). In addition, the plaintiffs seek punitive damages for alleged "outrageous conduct . . . beyond all possible bounds of decency."

A second, separate lawsuit was filed Monday in county circuit court by the daughers of two victims, William and Janice Bright of Higginsville, Missouri. The suit names Ride the Ducks International, Ripley Entertainment and the boat's two operators, and seeks $125,000 in damages.