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Judge Recommends Dismissal Of Criminal Charges In Branson Duck Boat Disaster

Tia Coleman
Darron Cummings/AP
Tia Coleman is comforted by a guest during a funeral for her husband, Glenn Coleman, and her children, Reece Coleman, Evan Coleman and Arya Coleman, Friday, July 27, 2018, in Indianapolis. Nine members of the Coleman family were killed in a duck boat accident at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo.

Three men were charged with misconduct, negligence and other counts in connection with the 2018 sinking of a duck boat that left 17 people dead.

A federal magistrate judge has recommended that criminal charges be dismissed against three men indicted over the 2018 sinking of a duck boat in Branson, Missouri, that killed 17 people.

A 47-count indictment unsealed in June 2019 accused Curtis Lanham, the general manager of the boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, the manager on duty that day, with a variety of neglect and misconduct charges.

An earlier indictment charged the boat’s captain, Scott McKee, with failure to properly assess incoming weather before launching the boat and not telling passengers to use flotation devices as weather conditions worsened.

The tourist boat shoved off into Table Rock Lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. It capsized and sank during an ensuing storm. A crew member and 16 passengers, including nine members of a single Indianapolis family, died. Fourteen people survived.

The indictment was based on admiralty jurisdiction. But in his report Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush concluded the charges should be dismissed because Table Rock Lake is not considered a navigable waterway under admiralty law.

Tom Bath and Tricia Bath, the husband and wife lawyers who represented Lanham, said in an email that the boat’s sinking was “a terrible tragedy.”

But they said they believed it “was caused by a once in a lifetime storm and not as a result of actions or the failure to act on the part of Curtis or any other employees.”

In April, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed Ride the Ducks Branson for failing to monitor and respond to the changing weather. It also criticized the U.S. Coast Guard, which it said failed to enact NTSB recommendations on duck boat safety dating to a 1999 incident that could have prevented the Branson disaster.

Rush’s ruling Friday was not the first time the somewhat arcane issue of admiralty jurisdiction has come into play in the duck boat disaster.

Last year, another federal judge similarly ruled that admiralty jurisdiction does not apply to Table Rock Lake because it is not a navigable waterway, as defined by the law.

But that ruling did not arise in a criminal case but rather in civil suits brought by families of those who died and survivors of the disaster against the operator of Ride the Ducks, Ripley Entertainment.

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

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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