Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles invoke 1851 law to limit liability

Orlando, Florida-based Ripley Entertainment and Branson, Missouri-based Branson Duck Vehicles, which are facing multiple lawsuits over the July 19th incident when Stretch Duck 7 sank in a sudden storm on Table Rock Lake, Branson, Missouri, resulting in the deaths of 17 people, have invoked an 1851 law that allows vessel owners to try to avoid or limit legal damages.

“Ripley’s inhuman legal ploy will sink as fast as their death trap duck boat did,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney representing some of the accident victims, adding that “we will legally and factually demolish this frivolous claim.”

The federal law cited by Ripley and Branson Duck Vehicles could see claims consolidated into a single federal court case. The companies’ petition states that, under the federal law, they would not owe any damages because the boat carried no freight and was a total loss.

Less than a week before lawyers for Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles asked US District Judge M. Douglas Harpool for a 90-day extension of court filing deadlines so that they could pursue a potential settlement. The judge said he would consider the request at a November 1st hearing.

Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts asserted that the liability limitation filing made Monday was “common in claims related to maritime incidents”, adding that the goal was to delay the multiple court cases to give the parties time for mediation. “We have reached out to those most impacted by the accident and offered to mediate their claims now,” Smagala-Potts said, claiming that “mediation often leads to faster resolution and allows those affected to avoid a lengthy process of litigation, and most importantly, begin the healing process.”

Ripley owned the Ride the Ducks operation on Table Rock Lake, while Branson Duck Vehicles owned the boats.

Mongeluzzi claimed that there have been no settlement offers. “Ripley’s claims of supporting these families are false”. One federal lawsuit being pursued by Mongeluzzi and his fellow attorneys seeks $100m in damages on behalf of two of the deceased family members.

That lawsuit says the boat operators violated the company’s policies by continuing with the ride, despite weather warnings, and by not telling passengers to put on life jackets when the weather deteriorated sharply. Instead the pilot lowered plastic side curtains, which trapped passengers inside the boat when it sank, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites an August 2017 report from a private inspector who warned Ripley Entertainment that the vessels’ engines – and pumps that remove water from their hulls – were susceptible to failing in bad weather. It further accuses the defendants of ignoring warnings issued by the National Transportation Safety Board that the vehicles, which are designed to operate on land and water, should be upgraded to ensure they remained upright and floating in bad weather.

Ripley Entertainment has filed that the boat’s sinking was “an unforeseeable and unintentional occurrence.” In its latest filing it said that the boat was “in all respects and properly manned, equipped and supplied” and that its sinking was not caused by “any fault, neglect or want of care” by the companies.