Who’s Responsible for the Duck Boat Disaster?

On July 19, 2018, a tour boat known as a “duck boat” capsized during a storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri. Among the two crew members and 29 passengers on board, a total of 17 died—16 passengers and one from the crew. One woman lost nine of her family members in the tragedy.

The sinking near Branson is far from the first duck boat fatalities in the U.S. Over the past 20 years, almost 40 people have died in duck boat accidents, either on the road or in the water (a duck boat can navigate both). Thirteen people died when a duck boat sank on a lake near Hot Springs, Arkansas, in May, 1999.

What is a Duck Boat?

Duck boats come from the military. During World War II and the Korean War, the U.S. military used DUKW (duck) boats to move goods and troops over both land and water. The boats are amphibious, meaning they can move smoothly from land to water and vice versa. The boats were never intended to have a long life span, and yet a number of them are still in use as commercial tourist transportation. It has been determined that the duck boat which sank near Branson was a repurposed and refurbished WWII vintage DUKW vessel, meaning the boat was between 75 and 80 years old.

Ride the Duck Branson, a division of Ripley Entertainment, originally claimed on their web site that they use only newer vessels based on the old DUKW boats. However, it’s been determined that this particular vessel was of WWII vintage and not recent.

A History of Safety Problems

With the 1999 duck boat accident, the NTSB concluded that inadequate maintenance was the cause. In 2002, the board released a list of recommendations for duck boat operators to follow to ensure passenger safety, including removing canopies, which hamper underwater escape, and adding “backup buoyancy” to keep the boats afloat even when they are flooded.

But in the past 20 years, the NTSB’s recommendations have mostly been ignored. It’s possible that those who died on Table Rock Lake might still be alive if their recommendations had been taken to heart.

Additional problems with the boats which have been cited by critics include their odd shape, which creates blind spots, and the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard, who regulates the vessels, has limited authority and oversight.

What About Life Jackets?

Why weren’t the passengers wearing life jackets? In short, they weren’t required to by either Missouri or federal law because they were riding on a commercial vessel.

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The Coast Guard does have regulations concerning duck boats and life jackets. These vessels are required to carry at least 38 adult life jackets and at least four that fit children. However, because the boats are commercial, passengers are not obligated to wear the jackets.

Is Anyone Legally Responsible?

It might seem as if no laws or regulations were broken during the Missouri disaster. However, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations mandates that “a master of a vessel” is supposed to require that all passengers put on life jackets when “possible hazardous conditions exist.” Because of the dangerous thunderstorm that blew in, it would appear that regulations were broken.

However, they are regulations, not laws. Only Congress can enact federal laws. Regulations are written by agencies to help implement laws. Examples of federal laws are the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 and the Federal Boating Act of 1958. These distinctions make a difference in a court of law.

The Branson tragedy has another possible twist: the Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act, which took effect in 1851 as a way to help our young country’s struggling marine business. What the Act does is limit the legal damages of the vessel’s owner to the salvage value of the vessel. A duck boat in good condition costs around $100,000; sunk, it’s worth close to zero. The Act has been used successfully in the past and as recently as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Attorneys are debating whether a case can be successfully made by the survivors. On July 29, a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City on behalf of two victims.  The suit seeks $100 million in damages from Ripley Entertainment Inc., Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks of Branson, the Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing. The case was brought on grounds of negligence, strict product liability, outrageous conduct, wrongful death, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the Missouri law relating to truth in merchandising.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman during the 1999 sinking, Jim Hall, believes duck boats should be banned because they are unsafe: “If we had this type of event on a repeated basis with other forms of transportation, I think we would have seen responsible regulatory agencies banning their use.”.