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Two Lawsuits Filed In Fatal Branson Duck Boat Accident; Lawyer Calls Craft ‘Death Trap’

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Philadelphia attorney Robert Mongeluzzi has filed a federal lawsuit over the duck boat accident in Branson that left 17 people dead. Mongeluzzi is representing a few of the victims of a family of 11, pictured here before their ride on the duck boat.

This story was updated at 5:24 p.m. to include information that the Missouri attorney general's office has begun a criminal investigation into the accident.

Two separate civil lawsuits have been filed over the duck boat accident in Branson, Missouri, that led to deaths of 17 people on July 19.

And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has launched a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the accident, according to The Kansas City Star

A federal lawsuit filed in Kansas City on behalf of Ervin “Ray” Coleman, 76, and Maxwell Ly, 2, alleges the companies that operated the boat were negligent. Coleman and Ly were among a family of 11 from Indianapolis, Indiana, on the boat that day. Nine of them drowned.

“The family has given us two things to do: Find out what happened, and make sure it never happens again,” said an attorney for the family, Robert Mongeluzzi.

A separate lawsuit was filed on Monday in Taney County Circuit Court on behalf of two other victims, William and Janice Bright of Higginsville, Missouri. The suit seeks unspecified damages for negligence.

Both suits allege Ripley Entertainment and Ride the Ducks took known risks for financial gain.

The attorney general's office, in response to a question from The Star, confirmed that it was looking into whether a crime was committed.

“The Office has an open criminal investigation, under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, into the duck boat incident at Table Rock Lake,” Mary Compton, a spokeswoman for Hawley’s office, told The Star in an email. “We are working with investigators to determine the facts and whether any criminal charges are appropriate.”

The federal civil suit alleges the Ride the Ducks crew ignored a thunderstorm warning issued that morning. While the boat typically started on land before entering the water, Mongeluzzi said the boat crew switched the sequence that day.

“It was clear they knew severe weather was coming. They tried to beat the storm, rather than refunding the 40 bucks that each person paid,” he said.

The incident was the deadliest involving a duck boat in North America and brings the death toll from Ride the Ducks boat accidents to 42 over the past 20 years, Mongeluzzi said. Mongeluzzi also represented the families of two victims of a fatal Ride the Ducks boat collision in 2010.

“Duck boats are sinking coffins,” he said.

A 1999 incident in Arkansas killed 13 people, and Ride the Ducks' operation in Philadelphia shut down after Mongeluzzi won $17 million in court for the families of two victims there.

He said that the Ride the Ducks boats had “fallen through the cracks of governmental regulation.”

Mongeluzzi said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called attention to the risk of the duck boats’ canopies in 2002, but Ride the Ducks “never did anything to take them off.” As such, he said, not even life vests can save passengers.

"So, because of the canopies they add, you are dead if you do, dead if you don't, drowned if you do, drowned if you don't," Mongeluzzi said. "They put their passengers in an impossible situation."

"This tragedy was the predictable and predicted result of decades of unacceptable, greed-driven, and willful ignorance of safety by the Duck Boat industry in the face of specific and repeated warnings that their Duck Boats are death traps for passengers," the federal lawsuit states.

Attorneys said at a news conference on Monday that they would seek $100 million in the federal case, though Mongeluzzi said no amount was enough.

“If a company and industry put your loved ones in a coffin, would you want them to pay for that coffin? I don’t think so,” he said.

Mongeluzzi said his clients were clear in wanting to make sure a similar incident never happens again.

In a written statement, Ripley Entertainment spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said the company could not comment because an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board was “still underway and no conclusions have been reached.”

“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families,” she said.  

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter at @_tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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