Duck boat company fined $500K for safety violation months before selling in 2017

Twenty months before a Ride the Ducks boat sank in Table Rock Lake, killing 17, the company that owned the attraction at the time agreed to pay a $500,000 fine for a federal safety violation.

That 2016 violation was discovered as part of an investigation into another duck boat crash that killed five in Seattle in 2015.

Now, that company — Ride the Ducks International — and the family associated with it, find themselves named in a lawsuit over the July 19 disaster. The ride’s current owner is Ripley Entertainment, which purchased the Branson ducks in December.

The lawsuit, filed Sunday, alleges that Herschend Family Entertainment, Ride the Ducks International, Ripley Entertainment and two other companies failed to make safety improvements that would have prevented the loss of lives near Branson. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of two members of an Indianapolis family who lost nine when Stretch Duck 07 sank during a severe storm.

“On numerous occasions before July 19, 2018, defendants were warned that the canopies used on their duck boats were dangerous and created death traps for passengers in the event of emergency,” the lawsuit said. “For two decades, defendants had been repeatedly told to change the design of their duck boats to make them safer, but they entirely ignored these warnings.”

Herschend Family Entertainment — known for helping develop the Branson community into a national tourist destination — sold a majority interest in the company to an independent investor in 2012.

In response to questions from The Star, Herschend Family Entertainment released a statement Monday. It only addressed the ownership of the ducks in Branson.

“Ripley Entertainment, Inc. owns and operates the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson, Missouri,” it read. “They purchased it in December 2017. Beyond that, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”

The Herschend family’s involvement in the attraction was also referenced in a second lawsuit, filed Monday in Taney County Circuit Court on behalf of a Higginsville couple who died when the duck boat sank earlier this month.

The suit mentions the $500,000 fine, which was for failing to issue a recall on a defective part that was blamed for the deadly Seattle crash, according to records reviewed by The Star. A member of the Herschend family agreed to pay the fine.

Ride the Ducks got its start in Branson, according to court records. In 2001, it partnered with privately held Herschend Family Entertainment to gain broader exposure. Three years later, Herschend would become Ride the Ducks’ sole owner. In 2012, Herschend sold majority interest of the company to a private investor.

Headquartered in the Atlanta area, Herschend Family Entertainment owns and manages several theme parks and attractions across the country.

The hefty fine came a year before Ripley Entertainment bought the Branson company. The penalty stemmed from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into Ride the Ducks International’s safety practices.

Ride the Ducks International had issued its licensees a “service bulletin” in 2013 that said the front axle of its stretch ducks had the potential to fail.

The axles should be repaired as soon as possible, the bulletin said, and until that happened they should be inspected daily.

Then in September 2015, a stretch duck was involved in a crash with a motor coach in Seattle, killing five college students and injuring 69 others. And though the vehicle — owned and operated by Ride the Ducks of Seattle — had an axle with the defect mentioned in the service bulletin’s warning, it had not been repaired.

In the investigation that followed, NHTSA found that some of the parts the company used in building the vehicle were donor parts from a military surplus vehicle.

In 2016, NHTSA issued a consent order to Ride the Ducks International after finding it in violation of federal safety regulations.

The order, signed in November 2016 by Chris Herschend, who was president of Ride the Ducks International at the time, required the company to obtain an outside consultant to advise it on legal requirements and compliance. His LinkedIn page lists him as the president and majority owner of Ride the Ducks International from August 2004 to 2018 and the vice chairman of Herschend Family Entertainment since 1997.

The company was ordered to pay $480,000 in civil penalties and spend $20,000 to ensure completion of the terms of the order. According to the agreement, the company would owe up to another $500,000 if it committed further violations.

“Companies have an obligation to understand their responsibilities under the law, especially when those laws are in place to protect the public’s safety,” said then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The consent order shows that the company was to pay $240,000 by May 14, 2017. The remaining $240,000 would be due in three, equal installments each year for three years. It is unknown if the company had paid the fine in full by the time of the July 19 tragedy.

Neil Nakahodo

At the time, the order said, Ride the Ducks International was operating 57 stretch ducks.

After the consent agreement, the company issued a safety recall.

“If the axle housing fractures,” the recall said, “the driver may lose control of the vehicle and increase the risk of a crash.”

In August 2017, before Ripley bought the Branson Ride the Ducks company, Ripley hired inspector Steven Paul to inspect the duck boats, including Stretch Duck 07.

The goal was to provide Ripley the knowledge of “what they were buying before the sale was final,” according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Indianapolis family.

“Upon information and belief,” the lawsuit said, “Steven Paul warned Defendants that the design of their Duck boats put their vessels at risk of sinking.”

The lawsuit said Paul told the Ripley company that “in rough conditions, water could get into the exhaust system, and then into the motor, cutting it off.”

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