A federal lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages has been filed on behalf of the estates of two of nine members of an Indiana family who drowned when a duck boat sank near Branson, MO. A second lawsuit was filed in state court the following day by the three surviving daughters of a couple from Higginsville, MO who also drowned in the incident.
Severe Thunderstorm Sinks Duck Boat
On July 19, 2018, a duck boat entered Table Rock Lake near Branson, MO. The amphibious vehicle was carrying 31 passengers as part of a “Ride the Ducks Branson” sightseeing tour. The company, owned and operated by Ripley Entertainment, Inc., offered duck boat tours scheduled to last approximately 70 minutes, with roughly half of the time spent on land and the other half on water.
The first gusts of a severe thunderstorm hit Table Rock Lake at 6:59 p.m. The duck boat took on water, capsized, and sank to the bottom of the lake by 7:09 p.m.
Duck Boat Lawsuits Allege Company Ignored Warnings
The federal duck boat lawsuit on behalf of the estates of 76-year-old Ervin Coleman and two-year-old Maxwell Ly was filed in the United States District Court in Kansas City, MO on July 29, 2018. The lawsuit names Ripley Entertainment Inc., Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks of Branson, the Herschend Family Entrainment Corp., and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing as Defendants.
The state court wrongful death lawsuit, filed a day later on behalf of the three daughters of William and Michelle Bright, names Riley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks International, and boat operators Kenneth McKee and Robert Williams as Defendants. It is seeking more than $125,000.00 in damages.
The federal lawsuit alleges that the boat operators violated the company’s policies by continuing with the duck boat ride despite warnings of inclement weather and by not alerting the passengers to put on life jackets when the water became rough. It also alleges that the boat operators lowered plastic side curtains in response to the change in weather, “thus further entrapping passengers in the soon-to-sink vessel.”
The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area that included Table Rock Lake approximately 30 minutes before the duck boat in question entered the lake. Kenneth McKee, who operated the duck boat while it was on the water, has acknowledged that he was aware of the warnings of bad weather before the trip, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the cause of the incident.
Proposed Upgrades Not Undertaken
Additionally, the federal lawsuit cites a report written by private inspector Steve Paul less than a year before the tragic sinking near Branson, MO. Paul’s report warned Ripley Entertainment that its duck boats’ engines and pumps, designed to remove water from their hulls, were susceptible to failing in bad weather.
The federal lawsuit also accuses the Defendants of ignoring warnings issued by the NTSB in 2000 that duck boats should be upgraded to ensure that they remain upright and floating in inclement weather. The recommendations were voluntary, as the NTSB has no legal authority to enforce them. According to the federal lawsuit, 42 deaths have been associated with duck boats since 1999.
Robert McDowell was president of Ride the Ducks Branson at the time of the NTSB recommendations. The federal lawsuit alleges that he ignored the NTSB’s warnings to upgrade the duck boats, which he had designed, citing significant costs. Jim Hall, the NTSB Chairman at the time, said the agency made its recommendations because “immediate action was necessary to avoid additional loss of life.”
“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 states.
Separately, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office confirmed that it has opened a criminal investigation under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act into the incident.
Chicago Wrongful Death Lawyers
When a person is killed due to the misconduct of others, the families and heirs of the deceased may be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit against those who may have been responsible for the death.
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