Family of Missouri couple killed on duck boat sues captain, dead driver, companies

Duck boat victim’s sister: “Every penny they made should be returned to every victim”

Karen Abbott's brother, William Bright, was in Branson, Mo. celebrating his 45th wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Janice Bright, perished when the duck boat capsized. Abbott was planning to meet the couple in Branson for the weekend.
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Karen Abbott's brother, William Bright, was in Branson, Mo. celebrating his 45th wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Janice Bright, perished when the duck boat capsized. Abbott was planning to meet the couple in Branson for the weekend.

One day after a wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Indiana passengers who died aboard a Missouri duck boat, a second suit was filed Monday by the family of a Missouri couple who were also victims in the tragedy.

This suit is unique because, in addition to naming the companies involved, it also names the captain of the vessel as well as the man who drove the amphibious vehicle on land.

In all, 17 people died July 19 when the duck boat sank in violent weather on Table Rock Lake near Branson.

The second suit was filed in Taney County by the three adult daughters of William Bright, 65, and Janice Bright, 63, from Higginsville, Mo. The couple were visiting Branson to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

The suit, filed by the Brights’ three children — Michelle Chaffer, Rebekah Whittington and Christina Taylor — holds that four plaintiffs are negligent in their parents’ deaths: Ride the Ducks International LLC; Ripley Entertainment Inc., which now owns the Branson Ride the Ducks operation; the captain of the vessel, Kenneth McKee; and its driver on land, Robert Williams, who died when the boat sank.

William Bright, 65, and his wife, Janice, 64, went to Branson to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Courtesy of the family

The first lawsuit was filed Sunday on behalf 76-year-old Ervin Coleman of Indianapolis and his grandnephew 2-year-old Maxwell, who were among nine victims in a family of 11 aboard the boat that day.

The second lawsuit maintains that the company and the operators of the boat had fair warning that a storm was approaching when the boat entered Table Rock Lake at 6:55 p.m., some 20 minutes after the National Weather Service had issued a severe storm warning for the area. The weather service had issued a storm watch for the lake as early as 11:20 a.m., more than seven hours prior to the tragedy.

The suit states as fact that the companies, captain and driver tried to outpace the storm by putting the water portion of the amphibious tour first rather than after the portion on land, which is more typical.

“Despite six hours of advanced warning that a deadly storm was rapidly approaching, (Ride the Ducks Inc.) nonetheless, chose to risk the lives of William and Janice by moving forward with the water portion of the tour,” the suit claims.

It further claims, “Defendants were well aware of the approaching storm, but rather than lose out on profit, they chose to try and beat the storm.”

On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board released a timeline from a video recording recovered from Stretch Duck 07. At 7 p.m., five minutes after the vehicle entered the lake, whitecaps began thrashing the vessel’s bow. It would face near hurricane winds of 73 miles per hour and 4-foot swells. The captain would make two radio calls. Barely 8 minutes later, the onboard recorder ceased to operate. The first 911 call went out about 1 minute later.

The suit does not specify how much money is being sought in damages.

Ripley Entertainment offered a statement but did not not respond specifically to the lawsuit:

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

Beyond naming the captain, driver and companies as defendants, the lawsuit also questions the construction and seaworthiness of the duck boats and their inherent safety.

On the day after the tragedy, full of anger and grief, William Bright’s sister, Karen Abbott, lambasted the Ride the Ducks company.

“I think this company should have their ass sued off of them and every penny they made should be returned to every victim that’s ever lost their lives in this,” she said as she showed up in Branson to retrieve her brother’s car, where it had remained parked in the Ride the Ducks lot.

To be able to captain a duck boat like the one that sank near Branson, a person must have a U.S. Coast Guard’s mariner’s license.

First-time applicants for the license must be at least 18 years old, clear criminal background and national security checks, and show evidence of having passed a physical exam, drug test and first-aid course.

What they don’t need to show the Coast Guard is the ability to actually drive a boat. License seekers are on the honor system when reporting the number of days they’ve worked on the water — a key aspect to qualifying for or renewing a Master Credential, or what some loosely call a captain’s license.

For the “lower level licensing” that applies to the Ride the Duck vessel that sank, “the sad thing is they really don’t need to have that much experience,” said Julie Keim, owner of Compass Courses Maritime Training in Edmonds, Wash.

“And with thousands of these applications sent to the Coast Guard,” she said, “there’s no way to know whether or not captains are telling the truth.”

Smagala said the captain of the sunken vessel had been piloting the boats since 2002. The Coast Guard declined to confirm that or to comment on the man’s maritime history, citing the ongoing investigation. Little has been revealed about the Ride the Ducks policies for hiring and training captains.

Smagala said the company was “erring on the side of caution” and not commenting further so as not to interfere with the NTSB investigation.

According to the website of the National Maritime Center, which administers the rules of obtaining licenses from the Coast Guard, boaters seeking to become captains have to pass a series of written tests. Or they can take 80 or so hours of classroom instruction at private nautical schools offering Coast Guard-approved curricula, which don’t require hands-on steering.

And at some point in the credentialing process they must have logged enough “sea service days” doing chores on a boat.

Master licenses to run “small vessels” weighing 100 tons or less, including duck boats, generally require 360 days of duties that include “handling lines, being a lookout, steering the boat and other navigational or propulsion functions,” according to a Coast Guard FAQ web page.

But there can be exceptions to the rules for land-and-water operations like Ride the Ducks.

The National Maritime Center’s website includes a provision for “limited” master licenses allowing charter companies, with Coast Guard approval, to employ captains who are limited to steering certain types of small craft on a certain lake.

A limited license can be had after applicants complete 180 sea service days and, according to CoastalBoating.net, that service can begin at age 13.

It is not known if Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment Inc.’s chartered vessels at Table Rock employed operators with “limited” master licenses. Ripley bought the Branson company in 2017.

Licenses are to be renewed every five years, which skippers can do by taking a home test and mailing it to the Coast Guard.

Corporate owners of vessels steered by licensed mariners must periodically submit documentation to the Coast Guard that vouches for the experience of the drivers.

“With anything there’s an ability to lie about stuff,” said National Maritime Center spokeswoman Lt. Kate Cameron.

In any case, fraudulent filers “shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than five years” or both, according to the documents they must file.

Once enough work hours are accrued to become a captain, applicants can obtain their licenses if they pass a five-part written test taken at a Coast Guard regional exam center (the nearest to Kansas City is in St. Louis). Some may be allowed to bypass the test if they attend Coast Guard-approved courses.

At least 39 people have died in duck boat accident since 1999. In May of that year, 13 passengers including three children were killed when a duck boat named Miss Majectic sank within 15 seconds to one minute in Lake Hamilton in Arkansas, about seven minutes after entering the water.

An NTSB investigative report, released in 2002, made multiple recommendations on how to improve safety. The recommendations included removing overhead canopies that could trap passengers as the boat sank and implementing a reserve buoyancy mechanism to keep the boats from sinking at all.

No laws were created to guarantee the changes.

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