17 Dead in Catastrophic Duck Boat Accident

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Late last week, on Thursday evening, July 19, at around 7:10 PM CST, a chartered tour vessel out of Branson, Missouri (the “duck boat,” operated by Ride the Duck Branson) capsized and sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake.  Of the 29 passengers and two crewmembers aboard the vessel, only 14 survived, marking this as the worst duck boat incident since the death of 13 passengers in a 1999 duck boat sinking in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  First responders and passengers from nearby docked vessels came to the aid of survivors, rescuing those who were able to escape the sinking duck boat and swim to the surface.

Further investigation into the catastrophe is ongoing, though evidence that paints the boat operator (and the Captain) as not only negligent, but acting with reckless and disregard for passenger safety.

According to reports, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the area earlier that day.   A severe thunder storm watch, which specifically mentioned Table Rock Lake, was issued just 30 minutes prior to the boat sinking.  The storm created hurricane-force winds that created the turbulent waves and choppy currents that eventually overcame the vessel.

In the present case, all signs point to the Captain having recognized the danger presented by the approaching storm, but proceeding with the trip anyway.  Survivors attested to the fact that the Captain changed the timetable for the water-based portion of the tour in an attempt to avoid the worst of the storm. Clearly the Captain was aware that the thunderstorm would endanger his passengers, but acted negligently in exposing them to the risks.  Under these circumstances, the passengers in the presence case — and their surviving family members — will actionable injury and wrongful death claims to bring against Ride the Duck Branson (and the parent company, Ripley Entertainment).

We are encouraged to hear that — given the extremely dangerous circumstances — there were survivors, though we are disturbed and deeply saddened by the needless death of so many others.

Operators of Canopied Vessels Must Take Proper Safety Precautions to Avoid Exposing Passengers to Dangers

Reports detail the many failures of the Captain (and the boat operator) that contributed to the catastrophe at-issue.   In the present case, there seem to be three primary factors that contributed to the sinking of the duck boat:

  • weather warnings were not properly accounted for
  • lack of safety devices;
  • the existence of a canopy, and the delay in releasing the canopy;

Despite severe weather warnings, the duck boat continued its scheduled tour, only changing around its water-based portion to the earlier time slot.  This was an enormous error on the part of the boat operator.  At times, the waves were so violent that survivors are not certain whether the boat simply sank or was overturned.  Given their decades of experience boating on Table Rock Lake, the duck boat operator should have accounted for the danger and canceled the water-based portion of the tour.

Survivor accounts reveal that while the Captain pointed out the location of life jackets when they entered the vessel, he advised against passengers wearing the life jackets, noting that passengers “would not need them.”  These instructions undoubtedly had an influence on the passengers.  Nobody wore their life jackets while on-board, and even the survivors were not wearing life jackets when they were rescued by emergency responders.  Had passengers been encouraged to wear life jackets, more may have survived the sinking incident.

Duck boats are amphibious vessels, and “duck boat tours” involve a land-based and a water-based portion.   They are designed with a canopy for a roof which are inherently dangerous vessel.  After the fatal 1999 duck boat accident, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated and recommended that the canopies be removed, noting that passengers could not escape the sinking vessel due to the barrier presented by the canopy.  In the present case, the canopy also acted as a barrier, though the Captain eventually had a moment of clarity in which he released the canopy mechanism, allowing some passengers to escape.  Boat operators should avoid canopies, where possible, and if they do have canopies, they should train crewmembers to release the canopy sooner (or install a release mechanism for passengers).

Our Team of Maritime Lawyers Can Help

Here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkelman, P.A., our attorneys boast over a century of combined experience in providing legal assistance to those who suffer injuries (serious and fatal) while aboard a cruise ship, ferry, or small boat.  Though we handle a wide range of injury claims, our main focus is on handling complex maritime and admiralty claims.  We understand the unique challenges typical of claims brought against a boating operator, and how best to overcome the barriers put up by the defendant(s).

Over the years, our client-oriented approach to litigation has helped us obtain significant verdicts and settlements on behalf of the injured.  We believe that by keeping our clients informed and engaged throughout the litigation process, we are able to develop a stronger lawsuit overall.

Interested in speaking with a qualified attorney for further guidance?  Contact one of the experienced maritime lawyers at Lipcon for assistance.  We will evaluate your claims and help you determine next steps.