On July 19, 2018, the most deadly duck boat accident in United States history struck Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri. A duck boat operated by the tour company Ride The Ducks capsized in a storm killing 17 of the 31 people on board.
The accident has since spurred three lawsuits against the Ride The Ducks, its owner Ripley Entertainment, and others, alleging negligence and wrongful death for taking passengers out on the water in spite of severe weather advisories. The largest of the three is a federal lawsuit requesting $100 million on behalf of Irvin Coleman, 76, and 2-year-old Maxwell Coleman-Ly who lost 9 family members in the accident. The Missouri attorney general’s office has also confirmed that it has opened a criminal investigation against the tour company under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, which forbids fraudulent or deceptive claims in the course of selling goods or services.
This accident is not the first of its type to occur. In the last 20 years alone, nearly 40 people in the United States have been killed in duck boat accidents both in the water and on the road. The prevalence of these accidents has led transportation safety advocates to question how the industry has managed to avoid strict regulations and why duck boats have not been banned nationally.
What Are Duck Boats And Why Are They A Problem?
Duck boats are amphibious vehicles that can drive on land and float on the water. The vehicles were originally designed for military use but have become a popular tour attraction in cities near open water. Critics say the vehicles have managed to avoid tougher safety requirements because their oversight is divided between the Coast Guard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the city governments where they operate.
The former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board believes the duck boats should be banned nationwide because they put lives at risk every day. Because of their design, the vehicles lack adequate buoyancy to stay afloat once they began to flood. In addition, their canopy roofs have been called “death traps for passengers in the event of emergency,” as they prevent even passengers with life jackets from escaping the vehicle.
Although the Coast Guard requires life jackets to be available for each passenger on a duck boat, the crew is allowed to decide if and when they instruct passengers to wear them. Jim Pattison Jr., the president of Ripley Entertainment, which acquired the Ride the Ducks attraction in Branson last year, claims the franchise’s boats are always stocked with life jackets, but that people are not required to wear them.
A History Of Largely Unregulated Safety Threats
The dangers posed by the vehicles first came on the public radar in May of 1999 when a duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas killing 13. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the victims drowned after they became trapped beneath the boat’s canopy. The NTSB cited inadequate maintenance as the cause of the accident and issued a report in 2002 ordering duck boat operators nationwide to remove canopies and outfit their vessels with additional flotation devices.
The report also recommended that the Coast Guard step up its inspection of duck boats. However, none of the NTSB’s recommendations were put in place through the Coast Guard by rule-making authority. In spite of these suggested modifications, a Philadelphia duck boat stalled in the Delaware River and was struck by a barge sending 37 people into the water and killing 2 in 2010.
Safety measures issued by the NTSB have not been able to mitigate the array of safety hazards the amphibious vehicles pose on land either. In 2015, a duck boat collided with a motor coach in Seattle, killing 5 college students and injuring 69 others. Subsequent investigation revealed that the company knew the vehicle had a defective axle and had elected not to repair it. A year and a half before the Table Rock Lake sinking, Herschend Family Entertainment (the company that owned Ride The Ducks at the time) was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine for a federal safety violation after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the company had failed to issue a recall on a defective part that was blamed for the deadly Seattle crash.
The number of duck boat collisions in street intersections has surged in recent years as well. A Philadelphia pedestrian was killed by a duck boat on land in May of 2015. In April 2016, a Boston duck boat struck and killed a 28-year-old woman riding a scooter. Although safety changes were allegedly made following her death, another Boston duck boat collided with a car at the intersection of Congress and State Streets in early August.
Pending Litigation For The Branson, Missouri Sinking
Since the Table Rock Lake accident, at least three lawsuits and a criminal investigation have been launched against Ride The Ducks of Branson, Ripley Entertainment, and Herschend Family Entertainment.
The first lawsuit was filed in federal court in Missouri on behalf of the families of Ervin Coleman and Maxwell Ly seeking $100 million in damages for negligence and wrongful death. The suit blames the accident on “decades of unacceptable, greed-driven and willful ignorance of safety by the Duck Boat industry,” and points to upwards of 30 deaths linked to previous duck boat tragedies nationwide. Robert Mongeluzzi, the lawyer representing the family, has experience with duck boat litigation and successfully negotiated a $17 million settlement for victims of the 2010 duck boat collision in Philadelphia.
The second lawsuit was filed on behalf of married couple Janice and William Bright who were celebrating their anniversary when they perished in the sinking. Their daughters are estimated to request $100,000 in damages. Another lawsuit has recently been filed by the mother of a child who was present in the duck boat accident. The lawsuit was filed in Orlando, Florida, against Ripley Entertainment alleging the child suffered intense emotional trauma from the incident. No amount of money in damages has been specified thus far.
Both lawsuits allege the company’s operators knew that a powerful storm was coming but sent the boat out anyway. They also claim the company habitually ignored safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board. In addition, the Coleman family attorneys are looking to shut down the operation of the national duck boat industry the companies knowingly put their passengers at risk in vehicles that are unregulated and unfit for tourism activities.
Positive verdicts for the victims of the Table Rock Lake accident will ultimately rely on findings from the pending NTSB and Missouri attorney general’s office investigations.