Missouri duckboat owners cite 1851 law in boating deaths

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The owner of Ride The Ducks in Branson, Mo., is using a 19th century maritime law to defend itself in multiple lawsuits. The company is being sued in state and federal court by the families of 17 people who died after one of its duckboats sank in July on Table Rock Lake near Branson. The attorney general of Missouri is also suing the company, alleging violations of a state law.

Attorneys for Ride The Ducks owner Ripley Entertainment have asked victims to consider mediation to settle legal claims. The attorneys have also filed a complaint to combine several lawsuits against Ripley, according to a story in The Lake Expo.

Ripley’s attorneys said mediation could result in faster settlements for the clients. The attorneys are also citing a law passed in 1851 that limits liability against ship owners to the value of the sunken vessel in maritime accidents.

“Since the tragic accident in Branson, Mo., the primary focus of Ride The Ducks has been to do everything we possibly can to ease the pain of the survivors, their families and the families of the deceased,” said Ripley Entertainment spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts in a statement. “We are continuing these efforts in several ways, including actively seeking mediation for those affected.”

Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing several plaintiffs, said mediation is being considered. “Obviously, it is something we need to discuss with our clients, but no decisions have been made regarding that at all,” Mongeluzzi told the paper.

In a filing last week, Ripley Entertainment said it properly maintained its duckboats, arguing that the loss of its boat was not because of improper maintenance or crew error.

The 1851 Limitation of Liability Act has been used in other duckboat cases. Mongeluzzi, who represented two Hungarian tourists killed on a Ride the Ducks boat in Philadelphia in 2010, ultimately gained a $17 million settlement in the case — an amount far higher than the value of the duckboats.

In the Branson case, attorneys for Ripley Entertainment say the duckboat is a total loss, so if the courts agree with the Limitations of Liability Act, plaintiffs would not recover any damages.

“While this filing may limit the company’s liability, we are filing this request at the same time we are actively pursuing mediation and settlement with those most affected, and have already scheduled or are in the process of scheduling mediations,” said the Ripley statement.

“Ripley’s claim that the lives of the family members they killed with their outrageous and criminal conduct are worthless is yet another insult to these grieving family members from the Ripley’s organization,” Mongeluzzi countered in a statement.

A federal criminal investigation into the incident is also ongoing.

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