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Lawsuits Emerge Following Ride the Ducks Boat Tragedy

Laura Thomas Aug. 1, 2018

A lawsuit was recently filed following the July 19th tragedy where 17 people were killed during a Ride the Ducks boat tour in Branson, Missouri. Filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, this lawsuit seeks $100 million in damages on behalf of nine family members of an Indiana family who died from the sinking on Table Rock Lake.

The lawsuit accuses Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks of Branson, Ride the Ducks International, Herschend Family Entertainment and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing, LLC, of various counts of negligence, wrongful death, outrageous conduct, and product liability. The lawsuit alleged, “this tragedy was the predictable and predicted result of decades of unacceptable, greed-driven, and willful ignorance of safety by the Duck Boat industry in the face of specific and repeated warnings that their Duck Boats are death traps for passengers and pose grave danger to the public on water and on land”.

Over 200 paragraphs comprise the 43-page lawsuit, which covers the alleged details of the tragedy, history of other duck boat tragedies, the National Weather Service reports of bad weather from that day, pictures of the sinking, and descriptions of the nine counts involved.

The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) issued the following safety recommendations in February of 2000 to operators of amphibious passenger vehicles in the United States:

“Without delay, alter your amphibious vessels to provide reserve buoyancy through passive means, such as watertight compartmentalization, built-in flotation, or equivalent measures, so that they will remain afloat and upright in the event of flooding, even when carrying a full complement of passenger and crew”.

According to the lawsuit, President of Ride the Ducks Branson, Robert McDowell, responded to the NTSB’s recommendation by citing the significant costs associated with making the boats safer and claimed the cost posed a roadblock to adopting the safety improvement recommendations. The letter from Mr. McDowell to the NTSB, dated June 26, 2000, states “it will require considerable feasibility evaluation, and thus expense”.

A response from NTSB was sent less than two months later to Mr. McDowell, stating the NTSB believed that “immediate action was necessary to avoid additional loss of life”.

Other allegations against the defendants in this lawsuit are as follows:

  • In the face of a severe thunderstorm warning, Ripley Entertainment “continued to prioritize profits over safety and carried on with normal business operations”.

  • The Captain and Driver of the duck boat were told to “modify the tour schedule and take the water portion before the land portion in an effort to beat the storm”.

  • The Captain “lowered the plastic side curtains, thus further entrapping passengers in the soon-to-sink vessel”.

  • “Due to the dangerous and defective canopy of Stretch Duck 07, its passengers were trapped inside the Duck Boat as it sank below the surface of Table Rock Lake”.

  • “As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ carelessness, negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, outrageous conduct, and complete disregard for the welfare of their passengers, seventeen people were dragged to their horrific deaths when Stretch Duck 07 sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake, with the fourteen survivors suffering life-altering injuries”.

Other Lawsuits

One day after this lawsuit was filed, a second lawsuit was announced. William and Janice Bright, of Higginsville, Missouri died while on the duck boat celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. Their three daughters are seeking more than $125,000 in damages in their wrongful death lawsuit.

This 35-page lawsuit displayed several similarities to the first lawsuit, such as referencing the dangerous history of the amphibious vehicles and summarizing the alleged events of the tragedy. However, the defendants in this case are: Ride the Ducks International, LLC, Ripley Entertainment, Kenneth McKee (survivor and captain of the duck boat), and Robert Williams (the deceased driver of the boat). Counts for this lawsuit include negligence, strict liability, and wrongful death.

Other lawsuits continue to emerge as well, including one that was filed Tuesday, July 31st in federal court by family members of Belinda Coleman and Angela Coleman, who both died in the sinking. This lawsuit shows many similarities to the original $100 million lawsuit filed by the Coleman family.

Mandi Keller, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who survived the sinking, also filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, July 31st. This lawsuit is against Ripley Entertainment in Orange County, Florida where the company is based. While the girl was not physically injured in the tragedy, lawyers state she has “intense emotional trauma”.

Common Details Emphasized in The Lawsuits and Media

Private Inspector, Steve Paul has inspected these duck boats, including the one that sank. A report included in the $100 million lawsuit warned Ripley Entertainment that the vessels’ engines and pumps were susceptible to failing in bad weather. CBS News says the report also accuses the defendants of ignoring multiple warnings that the vehicles should be upgraded. This original recommendation was issued after a duck boat sank on May 1, 1999 and killed 13 people.

As for the allegations of negligence, this comes as a result of the duck boat company reportedly ignoring multiple weather warnings for the area. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the Table Rock Lake area about a half hour before the duck departed on the tour that would subsequently end in tragedy.

Another point made by countless news outlets is in reference to the life jackets on board. None of the 31 people (29 passengers and two workers) aboard the duck boat were wearing life saving vests at the time the boat went down. However, adequate vests were on board for passengers. According to a video on ABC News of a survivor sharing her story, the captain did reference the flotation devices. Tia Coleman, who lost nine family members including her children and husband, stated the captain “showed them [the passengers] wear they [the life vests] were, but said we wouldn’t need them- so no need to worry.”

Investigators are hoping that cameras aboard the boat survived the sinking and are still functional, as to provide further insight into how the events unfolded.

Our thoughts go out to the victims of this tragedy and Biesterveld & Crook, LLC will continue to follow these lawsuits, and any others that may arise over the coming weeks, in the hopes that the families get the resolutions they are hoping for.