Attorneys for two families of drowning victims from the July 19 duck boat disaster on Table Rock Lake called it “an absolute disgrace” that problems with the vessels were pointed out years ago and that the industry did nothing to make them safer.
The families of Ervin Coleman and Maxwell Ly on Sunday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Missouri accusing Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks of Branson and Herschend Family Entertainment of negligence and wrongful death for taking 29 passengers on the lake amid a strong storm that its operator knew about ahead of time.
What’s more, the lawsuit claims that Ride the Ducks and its various owners have known about safety problems with the World War II-era vessels that travel on land and water and, rather than make improvements, have rebuffed suggestions from a federal agency that would have made them safer.
“It is an absolute disgrace that those fatal designs were, in a very public way, pointed out over 16 years ago,” said Andrew Duffy, a Philadelphia attorney representing the estates of Coleman and grandnephew Maxwell, said at a press conference on Monday. “And the duck boat industry did nothing. And that is outrageous.”
The lawsuit seeks $100 million in damages from the companies that own Ride the Ducks and manufacture the boats. Coleman and his grand-nephew Maxwell were among nine members of the same Indianapolis family who died on the ride, which killed 17. The attorney said, however, he is not representing Tia Coleman, who was the first survivor to speak publicly about details of the incident. Tia Coleman was married to Ervin Coleman’s nephew, Glenn, who also died on the ride.
“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families,” said Suzanne Smegala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, which bought Ride the Ducks in Branson last year. “The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still underway. No conclusions have been reached, and we cannot comment at this time.”
In response to a request for comment from The Star, Herschend Family Entertainment pointed out that Ripley Entertainment bought the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson in December 2017.
“Beyond that, we cannot comment on pending litigation,” the statement said.
A Ride the Ducks boat with 31 people on board started a tour during the evening of July 19 and got caught in a severe storm that caused the boat to sink. A video of the incident shows large waves and 60 mile-per-hour winds battering the duck boat as it struggled against the storm in a vain attempt to make it ashore.
An initial National Transportation Safety Board investigation shows that the operators of Ride the Ducks knew about the storm — a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued as the ride started — and decided to reverse the ordinary course of the tour by starting it on water. The report said someone, it’s not specified who, told the boat’s crew to start the tour on water.
Attorneys for the families allege that decision was one made with the purpose of trying to get the water portion of the tour done before bad weather arrived.
“It is clear that they knew severe weather was coming and they tried to beat the storm by going on the water first rather than refunding the 40 bucks that each of these people paid, putting their lives at risk,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, who is representing the Coleman and Ly estates with Duffy. “Lives they would ultimately lose on a decision that those victims never had a chance to participate in.”
Jim Pattison, Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, told CBS News the day after the tragedy that the vessel “shouldn’t have been on the water.”
Mongeluzzi’s firm represented families of two Hungarian tourists who died in a duck boat that collided with a barge on the Delaware River in 2010. That incident resulted in a $17 million settlement for Mongeluzzi’s clients.
Ride the Ducks would be involved in another incident in Philadelphia in 2015 when a woman was crushed to death by a duck boat with allegedly significant blind spots for its driver as she crossed the street.
In all, there have been 42 deaths in North America involving duck boats since 1999, which marked the first major duck boat tragedy when a vessel sank on Lake Hamilton, Ark., killing 13.
Ride the Ducks pulled out of Philadelphia in 2016, citing a 330 percent increase in insurance premiums.
Mongeluzzi said his clients from the Branson incident want to ban duck boats in their current configuration.
“We drove them out of Philadelphia, and with this lawsuit, we hope to drive the death trap duck boats out of business,” Mongeluzzi said.
Duck boats, which were invented during World War II and meant to transport materials and troops on both water and land, have been converted into vessels to carry tourists.
Critics of the industry say they’re inherently dangerous and exist in a regulatory black hole where there’s little government oversight.
The NTSB has sounded several warnings about duck boats, but the agency is powerless to adopt or enforce regulations.
After the 1999 sinking in Arkansas, the NTSB made several recommendations to increase safety of duck boats. In particular, it said that duck boats should get rid of canopies that trap passengers if the boat starts sinking. It also recommended that the boats be retrofitted to have backup buoyancy so the odds of the boat sinking are reduced.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which can impose regulations on duck boats, has not put those recommendations into place. Congress, also, has not acted on the NTSB’s ideas for better duck boat safety.
The NTSB in 2000 came out with preliminary recommendations after the 1999 catastrophe in Arkansas, which implored that duck boats install additional buoyancy mechanisms.
Robert McDowell, who at the time was president of Ride the Ducks, wrote a letter to NTSB chairman Jim Hall in response, saying that the company had a potential solution it was pursuing and adding that “it will require considerable feasibility, evaluation, and thus, expense.”
Hall wrote back, saying that the NTSB made the buoyancy recommendation ahead of its 2002 final report because it believed “immediate action was necessary to avoid additional loss of life.”
McDowell, according to documents in a separate lawsuit in Seattle, altered and retrofitted original World War II duck boats after his family bought the business in 1976, despite having no background in engineering or mechanics.
Mongeluzzi’s firm took depositions of key Ride the Ducks personnel during that Philadelphia lawsuit.
When asked whether attorneys quizzed Ride the Ducks personnel about earlier warnings of duck boat safety and how they responded, attorney Jeffrey Goodman said, “The essential theme was, ‘No one ever told us these vehicles are illegal, there is no regulation banning them, we believe they are safe,’ was the essential theme of their responses.”