Lawsuit: Duck boat company ‘chose to value profits’ over safety of its passengers

Not quite two weeks after a duck boat sank during a storm and killed 17 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that the companies involved in the incident knew the boats were unsafe, knew bad weather was ahead and put profits ahead of safety.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of families of several victims in the July 19 disaster, accuses Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks of Branson, Herschend Family Entertainment and other defendants of negligence, wrongful death and product liability.

In a press conference Monday, the attorney announced the lawsuit seeks $100 million in damages for members of the Coleman family from Indianapolis, who lost 9 members on the ride.

A duck boat carrying 29 passengers and two Ride the Ducks employees took to the waters of Table Rock Lake on July 19 with a severe storm approaching. The storm hit the lake and battered the boat before sinking, drowning 17 of its passengers.

The lawsuit says years of warnings about the safety hazards posed by the duck boats, many of them reconstructed World War II-era vehicles that travel on land and water, were not heeded by the companies involved in the Ride the Ducks enterprise.

Ripley Entertainment, which bought Ride the Ducks in Branson in 2017, said it could not comment as the investigation into the incident continued.

“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families,” said Ripley Entertainment spokeswoman Suzanna Smagala in an email to The Star. “The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still underway. No conclusions have been reached, and we cannot comment at this time.”

Herschend Family Entertainment was not immediately available for comment.

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The lawsuit cites several prior incidents involving duck boats, recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board made to improve duck boat safety and documents by Ride the Ducks officials showing the company’s alleged reluctance to accept the NTSB’s suggestions.

Since the May 1, 1999, sinking of Miss Majestic on Lake Hamilton, Ark., that killed 13 passengers, the NTSB has urged safety upgrades on duck boats. But The Star has found that Congress and the U.S. Coast Guard have been slow to act.

In 2000, the NTSB suggested that duck boats adopt a backup buoyancy system to keep the boats from sinking; the Miss Majestic boat took up to one minute to sink after taking on water in 1999.

The lawsuit produces a letter from former Ride the Ducks president Robert McDowell responding to the NTSB’s recommendation, saying “it will require considerable feasibility, evaluation and thus expense.”

McDowell, who sold the Ride the Ducks business in 2004 to Herschend Family Entertainment after his family bought it in 1976, altered and reconstructed duck boats, despite lacking a background in engineering or mechanics, according to documents in a separate lawsuit in Seattle.

“Robert McDowell’s challenge of the NTSB chairman and the NTSB safety recommendation was driven solely by an attempt to value profits over the safety of Defendants’ passengers as Mr. McDowell had no training or formal background in engineering,” the Branson lawsuit said.

Jim Hall, the then-NTSB chairman, wrote back to McDowell indicating that “immediate action was necessary to avoid additional loss of life.”

Subsequent duck boat incidents in Ottawa, Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle would claim more lives over the years.

In 2017, Ripley Entertainment bought Ride the Ducks in Branson.

The lawsuit said the company was warned by an inspector about problems with the design of its duck boats prior to buying the Ride the Ducks enterprise in Branson last year.

On July 19, conditions for bad weather in Missouri were widely known after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch that morning. The watch turned into a warning at 6:32 p.m. as a thunderstorm with 60 mile-per-hour winds approached Table Rock Lake.

According to a preliminary NTSB report, the captain of the duck boat was told to begin the tour on water instead of land, which the lawsuit interpreted as “an effort to beat the storm.”

The same NTSB report indicates that the captain was aware of the weather conditions; the lawsuit said that passengers were told that they would not need life jackets. None wore a life jacket.

The lawsuit said that Ride the Ducks violated its own policy by starting a tour on water when bad weather was approaching.

A press conference is scheduled for 10:30 Monday morning to further discuss the lawsuit.

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