Duck boat operator in Branson asks judge to toss out civil lawsuits

Ripley Entertainment, the company that owns the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson, asked a judge on Monday to dismiss civil lawsuits filed against the company after a July disaster in which 17 people died.

Ripley Entertainment had bought Ride the Ducks late in 2017, just months before a duck boat carried tourists on Table Rock Lake on July 19 when a severe thunderstorm battered the vessel, causing it to sink and killing 17 of the 31 people on board.

Since then, both survivors and families of those who perished have sued Ripley Entertainment and others associated with the Branson operation, claiming that the company was negligent both in starting a tour on water when a strong storm was approaching and in not heeding safety recommendations that would make the World War II-era amphibious vehicles safer.

Monday’s filing represents some of Ripley Entertainment’s first public statements about the disaster since July. Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, told CBS News the day after the disaster that the boat “shouldn’t have been in the water,” but otherwise the company has largely offered statements pledging cooperation with investigations into the incident and offering condolences to families of those affected.

The company has not taken another duck boat on the waters of Table Rock Lake since the incident.

Monday’s motion to dismiss says the July incident was ”an unforeseeable and unintentional occurrence” and that Ripley Entertainment’s duck boats were in compliance with U.S. Coast Guard regulations. Lawsuits against the company say that the Coast Guard has not adopted recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board to improve the safety of duck boats.

The motions to dismiss were over lawsuits filed by John Coleman, brother of duck boat drowning victim Ervin Coleman; Lisa Berry and Marlo Rose Wells, who sued on behalf of the estates of Belinda Coleman, Angela Coleman and Maxwell Ly; and Tia Coleman, who survived the incident and is also bringing claims on behalf of Glenn Coleman, Reece Coleman, Evan Coleman and Arya Coleman, who each perished.

Ripley Entertainment also asks the judge to strike language from the plaintiffs’ lawsuits that it says is hyperbolic and inflammatory, saying it is prejudicial, unfairly vilifies the company and hurts the prospects of getting a fair trial.

“The facts show that Defendants had an impeccable safety record with vessels certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as in full compliance with applicable regulations,” Ripley Entertainment’s motion says.

It also said the plaintiffs combine claims for survivors and for wrongful death and improperly filed for punitive damages. The filing also said that the plaintiffs bring claims by Lisa Berry and Marlo Rose Wells on behalf of their niece, Angela Coleman. The Missouri wrongful death laws require certain family members — mainly spouses and children, or brothers and sisters — to sue on behalf of an estate without a court appointment.

Andrew Duffy, a Philadelphia attorney representing plaintiffs in the Branson duck boat case, pushed back on Ripley’s motion.

“We will vehemently oppose the motion to dismiss,” Duffy said. “We stand by our well-pled complaints and nothing in the motions to dismiss will prevent these matters from moving forward.”

Ripley Entertainment said in its motion to dismiss that the Table Rock Lake incident was “the first significant accident to happen in almost 47 years of operation.”

A Ride the Ducks operation in Philadelphia shut down in 2015 after two high profile incidents, one in which a woman was crushed to death as she walked across the street and another in which two tourists died after colliding with a tugboat on the Delaware River.

In Seattle, a Ride the Ducks boat collided with a charter bus in 2015, killing four and injuring several others. A civil lawsuit regarding the Seattle incident started on Monday.

It remains to be seen to what extent the civil lawsuits in the Branson incident will proceed. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri has asked a federal judge overseeing the Ride the Ducks cases to halt most discovery as it explores whether criminal charges are warranted.