Branson duck boat companies face two lawsuits, criminal investigation

In the aftermath of the accident that drowned 17 passengers riding a duck boat on Table Rock Lake near Branson, families of victims have filed two separate lawsuits against the companies involved.

The Missouri Attorney General’s office also confirmed Monday it had opened a criminal investigation into the incident, The Kansas City Star reports.

One lawsuit was filed in federal court, and the other was filed in state court. Both allege that the companies involved in the incident ignored years-old safety recommendations for the duck boats and failed to heed weather alerts on the day of the incident.

On July 19, an amphibious “Ride the Ducks” vehicle, owned by Ripley Entertainment Inc., entered the lake with 31 passengers aboard. In the midst of a predicted storm, wind and waves caused the boat to capsize, drowning 17 passengers.

Federal suit

The federal suit was filed by family members of Ervin Coleman and Maxwell Ly, both of Indianapolis, who died in the incident. Plaintiffs have filed for compensatory and punitive damages, alleging negligence, wrongful death and product liability. The suit names five defendants: Ripley Entertainment, Inc., of Orlando, Florida; Ride the Ducks International LLC, of Jefferson City; and Ride the Ducks of Branson LLC, Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing LLC, all of Branson.

Suzanne Smagala, public relations manager at Ripley Entertainment, said that the company cannot comment until an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is complete.

“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families. The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still underway and no conclusions have been reached. We cannot comment at this time,” Smagala said in an email.

The lawsuit alleges decades of “willful ignorance” of safety by the duck boat industry. It claims that Robert McDowell, formerly the president of Ride the Ducks, received a letter from the NTSB in 2000, following a 1999 duck boat accident in Arkansas that killed 13 people. The letter asked him to alter the design of the boats to keep them afloat during bad weather conditions, the suit alleges.

McDowell responded to these recommendations by admitting that these changes would affect the costs of operation, the suit says.

“It will require considerable feasibility evaluation and thus expense,” he wrote in a letter to the Chairman of NTSB.

The lawsuit also says that an inspector hired by Ripley before it acquired Ride the Ducks in December 2017 had warned the company about problems with the boat design.

The suit also alleges decisions on the day of the accident that “recklessly risked the lives of … passengers.” On the morning of the incident, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the entire day. The watch later became a warning.

The company’s policy prohibits vehicles from entering the water if there is a risk of winds exceeding 35 miles per hour, the suit says. The company violated its own protocol when it entered the water, the suit alleges, and the boat’s captain did not ask passengers to wear life jackets, also in violation of company policy.

“Despite countless explicit warnings, defendants repeatedly chose to value profits over the safety of their passengers,” the lawsuit says.

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