Government & Politics

Claire McCaskill files bill to boost duck boat safety while lawsuits keep rolling in

Sen. Claire McCaskill on Tuesday filed legislation that seeks long-awaited safety improvements to duck boats following the July 19 disaster on Table Rock Lake that killed 17 passengers.

The four-page bill, if passed, would enact many of the safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2002 after its investigation of a 1999 duck boat incident that killed 13 people near Hot Springs, Ark.

“Nearly 20 years ago following a similar incident, recommendations were made to help prevent tragedies like we experienced in Branson but they were largely ignored,” McCaskill, D-Missouri, said in a statement. “It’ll take some time before we know exactly what went wrong in Branson, but there’s absolutely no reason to wait to take this commonsense step.”

McCaskill’s bill would require:

  • Reserve buoyancy, which helps prevent a boat from sinking as it floods;
  • Removing overhead canopies that the NTSB found posed a drowning risk to passengers of a sinking boat;
  • Requiring passengers to wear personal flotation devices once canopies are removed;
  • Install independently powered electric bilge pumps that pump water out of a boat if it begins flooding.

The NTSB’s recommendations were never required by the U.S. Coast Guard through rulemaking, and Congress didn’t act after 2002, either. That’s despite warnings from the NTSB and others that duck boats — World War II-era vehicles that have been rebuilt for transporting tourists — have inherent safety problems. Since 1999, 42 people have died in duck boat-related accidents.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, whose office has opened a criminal investigation into the Table Rock Lake incident under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, said Tuesday he was waiting to see results of his office’s investigation and one by the Missouri Highway Patrol before saying what measures should be taken regarding duck boats.

“I think getting the facts from that will be very instructive as to what sort of steps should be taken,” said Hawley, a Republican who is running for McCaskill’s Senate seat. “I think there does probably need to be additional steps taken on these boats.”

Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia lawyer who is representing families of Matthew Ly, Ervin Coleman, Belinda Coleman and Angie Coleman, all who died in the Table Rock Lake incident, applauded McCaskill’s measure.

“The families support Senator McCaskill’s proposed legislation that would require duck boats to have sufficient buoyancy to remain afloat and to remove their canopies until their boats are modified,” Mongeluzzi said. “They remain committed to ensure that no other family suffer the unimaginable loss that the Rose Coleman family has suffered.”

Mongeluzzi filed a lawsuit in federal court on Sunday against Ripley Entertainment, Herschend Family Entertainment and Ride the Ducks International seeking $100 million for alleged negligence and wrongful death in the Table Rock Lake incident.

The lawsuit accuses the companies behind the Ride the Ducks operation of ignoring long-standing safety concerns by the NTSB and of taking 29 passengers out on Table Rock Lake, even though it knew that a severe thunderstorm was approaching.

Another lawsuit filed in Taney County, Missouri, on behalf of the families of William and Janice Bright, who died on Table Rock Lake, makes similar claims against the companies as well as duck boat captain Kenneth McKee and its driver on land, Robert Williams. Williams died when the boat sank.

Kansas City attorneys Adam Graves, Phyllis Norman, Gerald McGonagle and Christoper Gahagan are representing the Bright family in the Taney County case.

Also on Tuesday, Amanda Keller, the mother of Gillian Collins, who was on the duck boat on Table Rock Lake, filed a lawsuit against Ripley Entertainment in Orange County, Florida, bringing the total number of lawsuits to three, so far.

Related stories from Kansas City Star