Operators in Fatal Duck Boat Accident Say They Owe Families Nothing, Citing Obscure 1851 Law
Our New York City maritime and admiralty lawyers know that there is no depth that boating companies won’t sink to in an attempt to avoid liability for the harm that they have caused. Two companies that operated the Missouri tourist boat that sank during a storm in July, killing 17 people, have invoked a 19th century federal maritime law to claim that they owe no money to the victims’ family members who have filed multiple lawsuits.
The operators, Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles, filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to take advantage of an 1851 law that could limit their financial liability to the duck boat’s value after the crash and any cargo that was on board. The vessel, which sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is now worthless and had no freight, so the companies owe $0, their lawyers argued.
While shipowners routinely seek such protections in accidents and the families’ lawyers anticipated the legal maneuver, the filing by the companies angered survivors and the victims’ family members. Tia Coleman, who escaped the sinking boat but who lost nine relatives, including her husband and three children, said that she was insulted and called for a boycott of Ripley Entertainment, which operates numerous tourist attractions, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
The companies’ petition, filed in the United States District Court of Western Missouri, seeks to limit what they could owe and to combine all of the lawsuits in the accident into one federal court case.
A spokeswoman for Ripley called the legal request “common in claims related to maritime incidents.”
More than two dozen lawsuits, filed in both federal and state court, have been brought against Ripley, which owns the Ride the Ducks operation on Table Rock Lake, or Branson Duck Vehicles, which owned the boat that sank. The boat capsized on July 19 while it tried to navigate choppy water and rain as a thunderstorm moved through southwestern Missouri. Of the 31 people on board, 17 died.
The law at the center of the case, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, has been criticized for years over claims that it has been misapplied and used in ways that Congress did not envision when it was passed. The law was enacted to protect American shipowners competing with foreign vessels at a time in the mid-19th century when modern insurance did not exist and other countries had similar laws and booming trade.
The law includes provisions that could undercut the duck boat operators’ claims that they are not financially liable, said a professor of maritime law at Tulane University.
Companies must prove they had no prior knowledge of negligence or unseaworthy conditions that could have contributed to the accident. Typically, if a vessel sinks, it is strong evidence that it was not seaworthy. Even though management may not have been involved in the individual decision, if management didn’t have rules and regulations for their employees with respect to not taking the boat out under certain conditions that would be enough to rule it out. Likewise, an improperly trained or skilled crew, in and of itself can make the vessel unseaworthy. Our New York City maritime lawyers are familiar with these tactics and continue to fight for those who have been injured or have had family members who have lost their lives at sea.