Federal Court Moves to Dismiss Charges Against Stretch Duck 07 Captain

Raising the wreck of the Stretch Duck 07 (USCG)

Published Sep 8, 2020 5:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

Federal charges against the master of the duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake, Missouri in 2018 may have to be dropped, a federal district court recommended Friday. 

Capt. Kenneth Scott McKee, an 18-year veteran of the Ride the Ducks tour boat operation in Branson, Missouri, faces charges of negligent operation of a vessel and seaman's manslaughter in connection with the sinking. His amphibious boat, the Stretch Duck 07, navigated out onto Table Rock Lake in a severe thunderstorm and foundered in higher-than-normal waves, claiming 17 lives. Nine of the victims were from the same family. 

The federal indictment accuses McKee of failing to "properly assess the nature of the severe weather" on the day of the accident voyage. The vessel's Coast Guard certificate of inspection limited its operation to periods with winds less than 35 miles per hour and waves of less than two feet. The National Transportation Safety Board has assessed that at the time of the casualty, winds on the lake were gusting to more than 70 mph and waves exceeded three feet.

The indictment also asserts that McKee's failure to instruct passengers to don lifejackets, his decision not to make way for shore, and his decision to allow the vessel's side spray curtains to remain down all contributed to the fatal outcome. If convicted, McKee faces up to 10 years in prison. 

However, on Friday, District Judge David Rush recommended that the charges should be dropped and the case tried in state courts instead. He determined that Table Rock Lake is not a "navigable waterway" as defined in U.S. admiralty law, and that federal courts therefore do not have jurisdiction. By precedent, navigable waters of the United States must form "a continued highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other states or foreign countries" (The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. 557, 19 L. Ed. 999 (1870)). The Eighth Circuit has previously ruled - twice - that Table Rock Lake specifically does not meet this test, and Rush determined that his court should follow this precedent. Finding no federal jurisdiction over the alleged crime, Judge Rush recommended dismissing the charges. 

"The Seaman’s Manslaughter statute does not reach the conduct in question, and dismissal is required," Rush wrote. "If defendants are to be prosecuted for the tragedy on Table Rock Lake, the law requires that the prosecution be handled at the state level, and not in federal court."

Judge Rush's recommendation also covers charges against two Ride the Ducks Branson managers who were on duty at the time of the casualty.