Federal charges in deadly Branson duck boat case may be dismissed

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

The 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 47-count indictment that was 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 a failure to properly assess incoming weather before launching the boat and not telling passengers to use flotation devices as weather conditions worsened.

The indictment was based on admiralty jurisdiction. But on Friday September 4th, US Magistrate Judge David P Rush said that the charges should be dismissed because under admiralty law Table Rock Lake was not considered a navigable waterway.

The tourist boat sailed onto the lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. It capsized and sank during a storm. A crew member and 16 passengers, including nine members of a single Indianapolis family, died. There were 14 survivors.

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 US Coast Guard, which it said failed to enact NTSB recommendations on duck boat safety. Those recommendations stemmed from a 1999 incident.

Last year another federal judge similarly ruled that admiralty jurisdiction does not apply to Table Rock Lake because it was not a navigable waterway. That ruling did not arise in a criminal case but in civil suits brought by families of those who died and survivors of the disaster against the operator of Ride the Ducks, Ripley Entertainment.

Ripley Entertainment deployed a well-known, often-used but much-criticized, 1851 maritime law that limits a vessel’s damages in an accident to the value of the sunken boat In the case of the duck boat that sum amounted to zero.