‘The duck boat industry is in trouble’: Two lawsuits and a criminal investigation

Attorneys for Indianapolis family who lost nine in Missouri duck boat tragedy announce lawsuit

During a press conference Monday, July 30, in Kansas City, attorneys for the family who lost nine members in the July 19 duck boat disaster in Missouri announced that they are filing a lawsuit for $100 million.
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During a press conference Monday, July 30, in Kansas City, attorneys for the family who lost nine members in the July 19 duck boat disaster in Missouri announced that they are filing a lawsuit for $100 million.

Little more than a week after 17 people died aboard a duck boat on Table Rock Lake, the companies behind the Ride the Ducks enterprise now face two lawsuits, and possibly more, as well as a criminal investigation.

The Missouri attorney general’s office confirmed to The Star on Monday that it has opened a criminal investigation under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, which forbids fraudulent or deceptive claims in the course of selling goods or services.

That confirmation came within 24 hours of two lawsuits filed on behalf of some of the victims — one in state court and the other in federal court — that accuse the companies of negligence and wrongful death in the July 19 tragedy. The lawsuits say the companies ran the duck boat on water knowing a severe storm was approaching and they did not follow recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board 16 years ago that would have made duck boats safer.

A Ride the Ducks boat started its tour of the lake near Branson, with 31 people aboard, just as the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning describing 60 mph winds for the area. Video shows a hapless duck boat overpowered by wind and waves just before it sank.

Eyewitness video shows Ride the Ducks boats being struck by huge waves on July 19 on Table Rock Lake. Onlookers can be heard saying 'it's going under.'

Monday was a whirlwind of news that painted the companies behind Ride the Ducks — Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks of Branson and Herschend Family Entertainment — as more concerned with profits than safety.

Offered a chance to respond, Ripley Entertainment said it was hindered by what it could say during an ongoing investigation.

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

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Herschend Family Entertainment, despite being named in one of the lawsuits, said only that it sold the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson to Ripley Entertainment in December 2017.

“Beyond that, we cannot comment on pending litigation,” the company said in a statement.

And while the results of an NTSB investigation, the civil lawsuits and the criminal inquiry may take months, if not longer, the duck boat industry may face an existential threat arising from the wave of bad publicity and battles on multiple fronts.

“I would tell you the duck boat industry is in trouble,” said Adam Detsky, an attorney with the Knight Nicastro law firm in Boulder, Colo., who has defended transportation companies in litigation. “This isn’t some new discovery about the dangers of duck boats both on the road and in the water.”

A criminal inquiry

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office, responding to a question from The Star, acknowledged on Monday that it had opened a criminal investigation into the Table Rock Lake disaster.

“The Office has an open investigation, under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, into the duck boat incident at Table Rock Lake,” said Mary Compton, spokeswoman for the attorney general.

The Missouri Merchandising Practices Act is a law usually used in civil matters and is meant to keep businesses and charities from making misrepresentations or deceiving consumers about goods and services sold. But the law allows for criminal prosecutions.

“You don’t see it very often in a criminal sense. You see it a lot in civil action … but there is a criminal provision there,” said William Beil, a shareholder with the German May law firm in Kansas City who has experience with matters involving the statute.

Criminal violations of the law can result in a Class D felony, which in Missouri can mean a prison sentence of not more than four years.

The Missouri attorney general’s office would not elaborate on what specific alleged violations it’s looking into or specific companies or individuals in question.

It could be as broad generally as statements regarding the safety of duck boats on the lake to the specific facts of this case, that it would be safe to go out when there’s a thunderstorm warning that has been issued or something like that,” Beil said. “Who knows what they’re going to look into, but it’s pretty wide ranging.”

Ripley Entertainment said it could not comment on any aspect of the case while the investigation continued.

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The first civil suit

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Neil Nakahodo

Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney who has represented clients who sued Ride the Ducks in the past, was hired by the families of Ervin Coleman and Coleman’s grandnephew Maxwell Ly to file a lawsuit Sunday seeking $100 million in damages against Ripley Entertainment and others.

Coleman, 76, and Maxwell, 2, were among 11 family members from Indianapolis who were aboard the boat. Nine of them died.

Mongeluzzi and his law partners blasted the Ride the Ducks enterprise in a press conference Monday morning at downtown’s Ambassador Hotel, saying they have called for bans on duck boats until the industry can improve the safety of its vehicles.

The lawsuit alleges that Ride the Ducks in Branson knew that a storm was coming and took passengers out on Table Rock Lake anyway.

The lawsuit points to a preliminary NTSB report out last Friday that said the captain referenced checking the weather as the tour embarked. The same report said the tour started on water, a reversal of its usual route that started on land.

Mongeluzzi took that as a sign that Ride the Ducks gambled that it could finish the water tour before the storm arrived.

It is clear that they knew severe weather was coming and they tried to beat the storm by going on the water first rather than refunding the 40 bucks that each of these people paid, putting their lives at risk,” said Mongeluzzi. “Lives they would ultimately lose on a decision that those victims never had a chance to participate in.”

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The Coleman family was visiting Branson for a vacation when the duck boat they were riding in sank in severe weather. Nine of them died. Courtesy of the Coleman family

Mongeluzzi obtained a $17 million settlement on behalf of the estates of two Hungarian tourists who were killed in a duck boat incident in Philadelphia in 2010. In that case, a duck boat was struck by a barge in the Delaware River, killing the two Hungarians and injuring others.

Mongeluzzi has since been critical of the duck boat industry, saying it has ignored warnings from the NTSB about the inherent dangers of the vessels.

Duck boats were originally used in World War II for carrying troops and materials. Original duck boats were built with a life expectancy of only a few months, according to a U.S. Coast Guard document from 2000.

The vehicles, which travel on both land and water, later became popular for carrying tourists on land and water.

Duck boats didn’t get much scrutiny until a May 1, 1999, incident where a vessel called Miss Majestic took on water and sank on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas, killing 13 of 21 people on board.

In 2002, the NTSB issued a report that said duck boats should remove canopies, which could trap passengers inside as a duck boat sank. It also said the boats should be retrofitted with a backup buoyancy system to keep the boats from sinking and recommended that the U.S. Coast Guard step up its inspection and oversight of duck boats.

None of the NTSB’s recommendations were put in place in any meaningful way, either by Congress through legislation or the Coast Guard by rule-making authority.

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Since 1999, 42 people have died in duck boat-related incidents both on land and water. But few regulations on duck boats have changed.

“It is an absolute disgrace that those fatal designs were, in a very public way, pointed out over 16 years ago,” said Andrew Duffy, a Philadelphia attorney who practices with Mongeluzzi. “And the duck boat industry did nothing. And that is outrageous.”

Mongeluzzi’s firm took depositions of key Ride the Ducks personnel during that Philadelphia lawsuit.

Asked how Ride the Ducks personnel responded to questions about earlier warnings of duck boat safety, attorney Jeffrey Goodman said, “The essential theme was, ‘No one ever told us these vehicles are illegal, there is no regulation banning them, we believe they are safe,’ was the essential theme of their responses.”

Detsky, the attorney who is not involved with any of the Ride the Ducks parties, said the lack of regulation or legislation on duck boats does not help the companies in litigation.

“Not really, not even so much because of the failure to legislate but more so from the common sense standpoint of negligence and general duty,” Detsky said. “Anyone who works in the water would tell you canopies are dangerous, and going out when there’s the danger of a flash flood or sudden storm popping up is dangerous.”

Originally a World War II vehicle, duck boats have had a troubled history when companies started using them for lake tours.

The second civil suit

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William and Janice Bright Courtesy of the family

On Monday, the three adult daughters of William Bright, 65, and Janice Bright, 63, from Higginsville, Mo., filed a lawsuit in Taney County, making many of the same allegations against Ripley and other companies as the Mongeluzzi lawsuit.

The Brights were in Branson celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary when they drowned on the duck boat. The Bright lawsuit differs from the Mongeluzzi lawsuit in one key respect: It names the captain of the vessel, Kenneth McKee, and its driver on land, Robert Williams. Williams died when the boat sank.

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.

“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.”

In the ordinary course of things, the civil lawsuits could take several months or years before making it to a jury.

But some speculate it might not get to that point.

“The best answer I can give you is I think the company would want to settle as quickly as possible,” Detsky said, “and the industry would want to settle as quickly as possible.”

Mongeluzzi said the stakes for his clients go beyond a settlement.

“They want to know what happened. Why did their loved ones die?” he said. “And more importantly, they want to make sure that no one ever dies again inside a death trap duck boat.”

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.