Criminal investigation underway in Table Rock Lake duck boat incident

Ride the Ducks boat recovered from bottom of Table Rock Lake

The Ride the Duck boat that sank on Thursday, July 19, 2018, killing 17 people was recovered from the bottom of Table Rock Lake on Monday, July 23, 2018, by the Coast Guard.
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The Ride the Duck boat that sank on Thursday, July 19, 2018, killing 17 people was recovered from the bottom of Table Rock Lake on Monday, July 23, 2018, by the Coast Guard.

The Missouri attorney general has opened a criminal investigation into the circumstances of a duck boat that sank July 19 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, killing 17 people.

In response to a question from The Star, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office confirmed on Monday that it is investigating the possibility of a crime.

“The Office has an open criminal investigation, under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, into the duck boat incident at Table Rock Lake,” Mary Compton, spokeswoman for Hawley’s office, said in an email to The Star. “We are working with investigators to determine the facts and whether any criminal charges are appropriate.”

Compton’s statement does not name any individuals or companies.

Ripley Entertainment, which bought the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson in 2017, had little to say about the development.

“As we have consistently stated, our focus is on the families affected by this tragic accident,” Suzanne Smegala-Potts, Ripley spokeswoman, said in an email to The Star. “As the recent National Transportation Safety Board report indicates, we are a party to the investigation and are restrained from commenting on any aspect of it.”

The Missouri Merchandising Practices Act is a consumer protection law that generally forbids fraud or deception in the sale of goods and services.

“Basically it’s any misrepresentation or fraud in connection with the sale of merchandise, which is defined to include services and things like that,” said William Beil, shareholder with Kansas City law firm German May who has handled cases involving the law.

The law is more commonly used in civil matters, but prosecuting attorneys and the Missouri attorney general are allowed to bring criminal charges under the act. Criminal violations of the statute are a class D felony, which can result in a prison term of not more than four years.

“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,” Beil said.

It’s not immediately clear what violation the Missouri attorney general is investigating.

“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.”

News of the criminal investigation comes within 24 hours of two civil lawsuits being filed against Ripley Entertainment, Herschend Family Entertainment and Ride the Ducks, accusing the companies of negligence and wrongful death in the July 19 disaster.

The civil lawsuits allege that the companies involved in the Ride the Ducks enterprise knew about the safety risks that duck boats pose, based on previous reports by the National Transportation Safety Board that warned about safety deficiencies with the World War II-era vehicles.

Lawyers said on Monday that 42 people have been killed in North America in duck boat incidents since 1999, when a duck boat in Arkansas sank and killed 13 passengers.

The lawsuits also claim that Ride the Ducks was negligent when it started the Table Rock Lake tour on the evening of July 19 when a severe thunderstorm was approaching the area.

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