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Duck Boat Owner Can't Use 19th Century Maritime Law To Limit Claims In Missouri Disaster, Judge Says

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

A 19th century maritime law does not apply to claims arising from a deadly duck boat disaster in Branson, Missouri, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision is in some sense academic, because the operator of the duck boat, Ripley Entertainment, has settled all but one of the 33 claims filed against it. But it means that Ripley won’t be able to limit the damages in the remaining case. It also means that cases against other possible defendants won’t be limited.

U.S. District Judge Doug Harpool on Friday found that "admiralty jurisdiction" does not apply to Table Rock Lake, where 16 passengers and a crew member died on July 19, 2018, after one of Ripley’s duck boats sank during a thunderstorm.

Families of those who died as well as survivors of the disaster sued Ripley, claiming it was negligent in sending the tourist boat out when it knew a thunderstorm was approaching.

In response, Ripley cited an 1851 maritime law that limits a vessel’s damages in an accident to the value of the sunken boat, which in this case amounts to zero. The law was designed to protect American ship owners competing with foreign vessels but has been routinely invoked to limit damages in accidents.

In his 5-page ruling, Harpool said the law does not apply to Table Rock Lake because the lake is not a navigable waterway, as defined by the law.

“By ruling as he did, he has completely dismissed this argument that Ripley had put forth,” said Hillsboro, Missouri, attorney Kevin Roberts, who represents the sons of Rosemarie Hamann, who died in the duck boat sinking. The sons, Joseph and William Strecker, have yet to settle their lawsuit against Ripley, and Roberts said that unless they get a satisfactory settlement offer, they’re prepared to go to trial.

“We attempted mediation once and we felt that, quite honestly, their posture was insulting,” Roberts said. “My clients were very, very disappointed.”

Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley, said the company had no comment.

Other than the Streckers, all of the remaining plaintiffs have reached confidential settlement agreements with Ripley.

Ripley has filed notice that it’s appealing Harpool’s decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It has asked Harpool to stay his ruling until the appeals court hands down its decision, which could take many months.

“They have asked Judge Harpool to restrict our ability to proceed in state court until the 8th Circuit rules, which we think is also wrong,” Roberts said. “And so we’ll still be crossing swords with them, I guess.”

The Streckers are suing in Stone County Circuit Court. A trial date has not been scheduled.  

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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