Big question hangs in duck boat lawsuits: Is Table Rock Lake a ‘navigable waterway?’

Tragedy on Table Rock Lake: What happened

Seventeen people died after a duck boat sank in stormy weather on July 19 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.
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Seventeen people died after a duck boat sank in stormy weather on July 19 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.

A packed federal courtroom in Springfield set out on Thursday to begin exploring several issues in litigation involving the Ride the Ducks disaster that killed 17 people on Table Rock Lake, including a big question about the legal designation of the lake itself.

The first court hearing highlighted the series of legal complexities in the duck boat case.

The question about whether Table Rock Lake is considered a “navigable waterway” will go a long way toward determining whether a series of plaintiffs — a combination of survivors of the July 19 catastrophe and families of those who drowned — could recover damages if they prevail in civil lawsuits against Ripley Entertainment, the owner of the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson.

Ripley Entertainment and other defendants face a wave of lawsuits after a Ride the Ducks boat went out on the lake as a severe thunderstorm approached. The storm, with its winds in excess of 70 miles per hour, battered a duck boat with 31 people on board, killing 17 as the vessel sank to the bottom of the lake.

Plaintiffs allege the company was negligent in allowing the water tour to begin because it knew a powerful storm was on its way, and that over the years Ride the Ducks had not improved safety on the World War II-era amphibious vehicles.

Ripley Entertainment has invoked a law passed in 1851 called the Limitations of Liability Act that restricts the damages that a shipowner has to pay out to the value of the vessel itself.

“Do you have an estimate of what that value would be?” federal judge Douglas Harpool asked Ripley Entertainment lawyer Jeffrey King.

“Zero,” King replied.

Ripley Entertainment has said it wants to mediate claims made by plaintiffs in the duck boat disaster, a way in which it could settle the lawsuits without the burden and expense of lengthy court proceedings.

But the Limitation of Liability Act could give the company leverage in civil cases if Harpool finds that the law applies in the Table Rock Lake disaster.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they have a strong case to make that the centuries-old law doesn’t apply.

For one thing, they can point to a legal case from 1983 that reached the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that declared that Table Rock Lake was not a “navigable waterway.” A navigable waterway is defined as big enough and with enough access points to sustain commercial activity.

If Table Rock Lake is not a navigable waterway, the Limitation of Liability Act can’t apply to the Branson duck boat disaster.

King, the Ripley Entertainment lawyer from Boston whose legal expertise includes maritime law, insisted that Table Rock Lake should be considered navigable. The fact that it crosses state lines into Arkansas and that commercial activity does take place on Table Rock Lake — the Branson Belle showboat, for example — suggests it meets the definition, King said.

Harpool made no rulings from the bench on Thursday.

Harpool did hear arguments from an assistant United States attorney who is evaluating whether criminal charges are warranted in the incident. The U.S. Attorney’s office has asked that most legal discovery — the exchange of evidence and testimony between parties in a civil lawsuit — be halted so as to not compromise the criminal investigation.

“The more statements witnesses give ... the more potential for inconsistent statements to develop,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Clark.

Harpool raised concerns that delaying discovery in the civil case could also delay the plaintiffs’ pursuit of justice.

Andrew Duffy, a lawyer representing several plaintiffs in the case, said he has discussed a series of compromises with Clark that would let both parties do their jobs.

“Attorney Clark and I, I believe we have struck that balance,” Duffy said, while adding that if the judge decides that the Limitation of Liability Act applies to his case, that it would be a “game changer.”