Lawsuit filed in fatal duck boat sinking seeks $100M

FILE - In this July 20, 2018, file photo, a duck boat sits idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks, an amphibious tour operator in Branson, Mo. A lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages was filed Sunday, July 29, against the owners and operators of a duck boat that sank July 19. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
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Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The owners and operators of a tourist boat that sank this month in Missouri, killing 17 people, put profits over people’s safety when they decided to put the Ride the Ducks boat on a lake despite design problems and warnings of severe weather, a lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City seeks $100 million in damages on behalf of two of nine members of an Indiana family who died when the tourist boat sank July 19 at Table Rock Lake near Branson.

A second lawsuit was filed Monday in state court on behalf of three daughters of William and Michelle Bright, of Higginsville, Missouri, who died in the accident. The wrongful-death lawsuit seeks more than $125,000 in damages. “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,” the federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of the estates of 76-year-old Ervin Coleman and 2-year-old Maxwell Ly, states.

Robert Mongeluzzi, whose law firm won a $17 million settlement when two Hungarian students drowned on a duck boat in Philadelphia in 2010, said at a news conference Monday that the Coleman family wants to know what happened when the boat sank. “And more importantly they want to make sure that no one ever dies again inside a death trap duck boat,” Mongeluzzi said. “They’ve asked that this lawsuit leads the charge to ban duck boats so they no longer kill their passengers and the children who ride them.”

Ripley Entertainment Inc., Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks of Branson, the Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing are named in the federal suit. The state-court suit names Riley Entertainment and Ride the Ducks International, as well as boat operators Kenneth McKee and Robert Williams. A Ripley spokeswoman said in a statement Monday that the company remains “deeply saddened” by the accident. She said the company would not comment further because a National Transportation Safety Board investigation is still underway and no conclusions have been reached.

The federal lawsuit says the boat operators violated the company’s policies by continuing with the ride despite the weather warnings and by not telling passengers to put on life jackets when the water got rough. He instead lowered plastic side curtains, “thus further entrapping passengers in the soon-to-sink vessel.” The lawsuit cites an August 2017 report from private inspector Steve Paul , who warned Ripley Entertainment that the vessels’ engines — and pumps that remove water from their hulls — were susceptible to failing in bad weather. It also accuses the defendants of ignoring warnings the NTSB issued in 2000 that the vehicles, which are designed to operate on land and water, should be upgraded to ensure they remain upright and floating in bad weather.

The 2000 recommendation from the NTSB was issued after a duck boat sank May 1, 1999, in Arkansas, killing 13 people. The federal suit says 42 deaths have been associated with duck boats since 1999. When Robert McDowell, then-president of Ride the Ducks Branson who designed the boats, responded that upgrades would require significant costs, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said the recommendations were made because “immediate action was necessary to avoid additional loss of life.” The lawsuit says the defendants ignored the warnings.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area including Table Rock Lake about 30 minutes before the doomed tour began. The NTSB said Friday that a preliminary review of video and audio recordings from the boat showed that the lake changed from calm to dangerous in minutes. The agency emphasized it had not drawn any conclusions on what caused the boat to sink. McKee, who operated the boat on the water, has acknowledged he was aware of the weather warnings before the trip, according to the NTSB. He could not be reached for comment Monday. Williams operated the boat on land and was among those who died.