Ripley settles first lawsuit in Branson duck boat sinking with Missouri family

The owner of the Branson duck boat that sank in July, killing 17, has settled its first lawsuit with the family of a Missouri couple who died, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

William Bright, 65, and Janice Bright, 63, from Higginsville, Mo., were on Stretch Duck 07 when it struggled in stormy waters and then went down on July 19. The Brights were visiting Branson to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

The couple’s three adult daughters — Michelle Chaffer, Rebekah Whittington and Christina Taylor — filed the suit in late July, contending that four plaintiffs were negligent in their parents’ deaths. They pointed to Ride the Ducks International LLC; Ripley Entertainment Inc., which owns the Branson Ride the Ducks; the captain of the vessel, Kenneth Scott McKee; and its driver on land, Robert Williams, who died when the boat sank.

Adam Graves, one of the attorneys for the daughters, said the settlement between the three and Ripley Entertainment was finalized Thursday night.

“Our people are satisfied,” Graves said. “They felt like they were really genuine in what they were doing. ... One of the first things Ripley said when they came into mediation was, ‘We are a family company, and we value family.’”

The Bright family lawsuit is one of several involving the duck boat sinking that have been filed in state or federal courts. Graves said the terms of the Bright settlement were confidential.

The daughters and their attorneys argued 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 lawsuit was originally filed in Taney County but was moved to Stone County last week. The boat sank in Stone County, just over the county line.

Graves said the settlement on Thanksgiving night was only with Ripley. The three others named in the lawsuit will remain defendants.

A Ripley spokeswoman said the company would not have a statement Friday.

Graves said his team has reached out to representatives of Ride the Ducks International and asked if they were interested in resolving the case.

“Their counsel said, ‘Yes, we want to talk, but we’ve got to talk to Ride the Ducks and get back to you,’” Graves said.

On the day after the July 19 tragedy, William Bright’s sister, Karen Abbott, lashed out at the Branson 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,” Abbott said. She went to Branson to retrieve her brother’s car, where it had remained parked in the Ride the Ducks lot.

Of the 17 dead, nine were from one Indianapolis family. The other victims included the Brights and another couple from St. Louis; an Illinois woman who was taking her granddaughter on a special trip to Branson; and a father and son from Arkansas.

Seven other passengers were injured, including a 13-year-old boy and his aunt who were relatives of the nine family members who died.

Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted McKee, who was in charge of the sunken boat that night on Table Rock Lake. He is accused of misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in connection with the tragedy.

McKee is accused of a litany of violations of federal law overseeing boat captains, including:

Not properly assessing incoming weather before taking the boat out on water;

Operating the boat in conditions that violate the U.S. Coast Guard’s certificate of inspection;

Not telling passengers to use flotation devices;

Not speeding up to head to the nearest shore as severe weather approached;

Failing to raise the side curtains of the boat when its bilge alarm sounded as it took on water.

Federal prosecutors said the investigation is ongoing.

That July night, the boat tour was initially set to begin on land, which was its usual course. Tickets for the tour said it would start at 6:30 p.m.

Before the first passengers boarded, an individual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to conduct the water portion of the tour first, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hurricane force — with waves topping three feet.

When the boat started its water tour at 6:55 p.m. the lake appeared calm. Around that time, emergency crews in Taney County began responding to calls about toppled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

Just after 7 p.m., winds increased and whitecaps were visible on the water, according to an initial report released by the NTSB. Less than a minute later, the captain of the Ride the Ducks boat made a comment about the storm, the NTSB report said, without further explanation.

The Star reported earlier this month about concerns with the duck boat’s bilge pumps that are designed to discharge water from the bottom of a flooding vessel. It found that a powerful mechanical device called a Higgins pump, capable of extracting up to 250 gallons of water per minute, had been removed from Stretch Duck 07 prior to the tragedy and replaced with electric bilge pumps with less capacity.

Ripley would not say what the capacity of those replacement pumps was, but The Star examined dozens of duck boat inspections conducted by the Coast Guard and found references to other Higgins pumps that had been replaced in recent years with electric bilge pumps. Those pumps were capable of extracting just 20 gallons of water or less per minute — or less than one-tenth the pumping capacity of a Higgins.

Smagala-Potts told The Star at the time that she couldn’t comment on the bilge pumps or anything related to Stretch Duck 07 because of the ongoing investigation.

Graves said late Thursday that his clients made one thing clear at the start of mediation.

“Before money was even discussed, our people said the only thing they wanted out of this case was that the duck boats that exist today do not end up back on the water,” he said.

Graves said his team was impressed with Ripley during the mediation process.

“They were really willing to make these people whole,” he said. “They were really trying to reach forward and say, ‘We cannot bring your loved ones back, but we’re willing to do what we can to make you whole.’

“And at the end of the day, we really felt that they did what they could.”

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