KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Philadelphia law firm has filed a lawsuit against Ripley Entertainment, Inc. on behalf of some members of the Indianapolis, Indiana family killed in a duck boat incident in Branson, Missouri.
The Ride the Ducks Branson vehicle capsized and sank on July 19, amid strong storm winds and taking on too much water. Seventeen people died, including the driver of the boat and nine members of a family of 11 on vacation from Indianapolis. The victims’ ages ranged from just 1 year old to 76 years old.
The lawsuit alleges wrongful death, outrageous conduct and negligence in the incident and seeks at least $100 million in damages.
Attorney Gregory W. Alshire is representing John D. Coleman, the administrator of the estate for Ervin Coleman, killed in the incident, along with Lisa D. Berry and Marlo Rose Wells, who are the administrators of the estate for victim Maxwell Ly.
According to the attorneys, the family sought them out because they represented clients in a 2010 duck boat sinking in Philadelphia resulting in two deaths.
Additional defendants include Ride the Ducks International, LLC, Ride the Ducks Branson, LLC, Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation, and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing, LLC, collectively referred to in the lawsuit as RTDI.
Ripley acquired RTDI in December 2017. According to the lawsuit, RTDI is the United States’ largest amphibious tour operator, with nearly 100 vessels that can carry more than one million people annually.
The lawsuit also says inspectors had warned the company the bilge pumps on the duck boats could fail in bad weather.
The lawsuit claims that Ripley was looking into buying the operations of Ride The Ducks International in August 2017 and hired an inspector.
According to the lawsuit, the inspector told Ripley the Branson duck boats’ engines and bilge pumps might fail in bad weather because the exhaust system was improperly placed. Both the engine and bilge pumps help remove water from the duck boats’ hulls.
The lawsuit alleges Ripley and Ride the Ducks did nothing to remedy the issues with the engines and bilge pumps after the inspector made them aware, saying “greed caused them to ignore severe weather conditions” and that the companies “value profits over the safety of their passengers.”
A chart shows duck boats have been involved in a number of fatal incidents since 1999, including the sinking of the Miss Majestic duck boat in Arkansas, an incident that killed 13 people.
After the Miss Majestic, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended duck boat owners to alter their vehicles to “provide reserve buoyancy… so that they will remain afloat and upright in the event of flooding, even when carrying a full complement of passenger and crew.”
Ride the Ducks’ president Robert McDowell responded by saying the company was pursuing a possible solution, but it required a “considerable feasibility evaluation, and thus expense.” The lawsuit claims McDowell admitted the great cost to make the recommended changes for safety was a sticking point.
In August 2000, the NTSB emphasized to McDowell that their recommendation needed to be implemented immediately in order “to avoid additional loss of life.”
The suit continues, providing McDowell’s educational background and detailing his involvement in the design of the duck boats.
The lawsuit says McDowell completed two years of college, which did not account for training or formal education in engineering and mechanics, yet he still designed and developed the “stretch duck” boats, including Stretch Duck 07, the vessel involved in the Table Rock Lake incident.
The lawsuit claims McDowell’s design was based on conversations with a former co-owner of Ride the Ducks, who was a high school football coach, and people at auto parts stores. McDowell allegedly did not consult an engineer with the design.
Additionally, attorneys point to the NTSB findings regarding canopies on duck boats after the 1999 Arkansas incident.
Specifically, the NTSB found the canopies create a danger because they trap passengers inside if the duck boat sinks.
Survivors say the captain also lowered plastic window coverings during the Table Rock Lake incident due to the poor weather.
The attorneys say it left passengers no easy exit from the sinking duck boat.
"Between the canopy which traps them and the windows which traps them, you are basically closing the coffin shut," said Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the attorneys representing the Coleman family.
Survivors told attorneys some of them were able to escape the sinking duck boat by ripping a hole in the canopy.
In a statement, a Ripley Entertainment spokeswoman said the company couldn't comment on the suit.
"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."