Judge says duck boat owner can’t use 19th century law to limit claims

When the duck boat sunk in a thunderstorm in 2018, 17 passengers and one crewmember were killed.

When the duck boat sunk in a thunderstorm in 2018, 17 passengers and one crewmember were killed.

A federal judge has determined that a 19th century maritime law does not apply to claims coming from a deadly duck boat accident in Branson, Mo., in 2018.

The operator of the boat, Ripley Entertainment, has settled all but one of the 33 claims filed against it as a result of the sinking that took place on Table Rock Lake near Branson during a thunderstorm. Sixteen passengers and a crew member died on July 19, 2018 after the boat went down.

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

In response, Ripley cited an 1851 maritime law called “Admiralty jurisdiction” that limits a vessel’s damages in an accident to the value of the sunken boat. The law was designed to protect American ship owners competing with foreign vessels. According to kcur.org, the law has been routinely invoked to limit damages in accidents.

U.S. District Judge Doug Harpool last Friday ruled that “admiralty jurisdiction” does not apply to the Table Rock Lake incident because the lake is not a navigable waterway as defined by law.

“By ruling as he did, he has completely dismissed this argument that Ripley had put forth,” Hillsboro, Mo., attorney Kevin Roberts, said in a statement. He represents the sons of Rosemarie Hamann, who died in the sinking. The sons, Joseph and William Strecker, have yet to settle with Ripley and the attorney said that if his clients don’t get a satisfactory settlement offer, they’re prepared to go trial. “We attempted mediation once and we felt, quite honestly, their posture was insulting,” Roberts said. “My clients were very, very disappointed.”

Ripley Entertainment had no comment. All the remaining plaintiffs have reached confidential settlement agreements with Ripley.

Ripley has filed notice that it will appeal Harpool’s decision to the 8 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and has asked the judge to stay his ruling until the appeals court hands down its decision.