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‘Duck Boats are death traps’: Attorney in wrongful death lawsuit says it’s about more than money

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- "For 20 years we have known that Duck Boats are death traps." That's how trial attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi began a news conference Monday to announce the wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court against 'Ride the Ducks.'

Trial attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi and his team

Mongeluzzi and his team of attorneys, Andrew Duffy, Jeff Goodman and Springfield, Missouri, attorney Greg Aleshire, filed the lawsuit Sunday against Ripley Entertainment alleging wrongful death, outrageous conduct and negligence.

The lawsuit seeks at least $100 million in damages for the estates of Ervin Coleman and Maxwell Ly, three of the 17 victims who died in the boat sinking on July 19, but the lead attorney insisted that this is much bigger than money.

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"These lawsuits were filed because the Rose Coleman family asked for two things. Number 1: they want to know what happened.  Why did their family members die? And more importantly they want to make sure that no one ever dies again inside a death trap duck boat," Mongeluzzi said.

Mongeluzzi and his team said the Indiana family sought them out because they won a major settlement when a duck boat sank in Pennsylvania in 2010.

The attorneys insisted that the amphibious vehicles are not suited for land or water, and  the canopy is a deadly flaw on the boat side. They said the lid seals the coffin when a duck boat sinks making it almost impossible to escape alive.

"Buoyancy of life preservers brought them up into the top of the canopy where they couldn’t get out," Mongeluzzi said describing the tragic incident. "But, if you don’t have a life-preserver and you can somehow fight your way through the dark and out the window, then you don’t have the buoyancy that will bring you to the surface and save your life."

Chart presented at news conference announcing the law suit on Monday, July 30, 2018.

Mongeluzzi went on and continued to place blame on the canopies.

"Because of the canopies that they added, you’re dead if you do, you’re dead if you don’t. You drown if you do, you drown if you don’t. They put their passengers in an impossible situation where no matter what they do, they’re likely to die if that duck boat sinks."

There were 31 people on the duck boat when it took on too much water during a storm and sank.

Mongeluzzi called it an, "unimaginable way to die.”

Read the entire lawsuit here

The lawsuit contends that Ripley Entertainment recklessly put the lives of its passengers at risk by ignoring storm warnings and failing to take corrective safety measures. The lawsuit says that Ripley ignored repeated safety warnings over two decades about the duck boats' canopies, and the danger they pose during an emergency. It cites a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board report that found the canopies "essentially caged them (the passengers), making escape in limited time available extremely difficult."

The suit also calls out unheeded warnings made by inspector Steven Paul, who told the company in August of 2017 that the duck boats' bilge pumps that remove water from the hull could fail in bad weather because they were improperly placed in the exhaust system.

A number of other duck boat deaths are mentioned in the court filing, including a 1999 incident where 13 people drowned in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a 2002 incident in Ontario, Calif., where four died, two incidents in Philadelphia where a total of three people died, a 2015 incident in Seattle where five died and a 2016 incident in Boston where one person died. In 2000 following the Hot Springs incident, the NTSB said that immediate action was needed to provide reserve buoyancy for the duck boats, but the suit says the company ignored this recommendation.

A number of other duck boat deaths are mentioned in the court filing, including a 1999 incident where 13 people drowned in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a 2002 incident in Ontario, Calif., where four died, two incidents in Philadelphia where a total of three people died, a 2015 incident in Seattle where five died and a 2016 incident in Boston where one person died. In 2000 following the Hot Springs incident, the NTSB said that immediate action was needed to provide reserve buoyancy for the duck boats, but the suit says the company ignored this recommendation.

History of the duck boats

On the day of the sinking, the lawsuit says company operators ignored a severe thunderstorm warning issued at 6:32 p.m. The captain and driver of Stretch Duck 07’s were told to take the water portion of the tour before the land in an effort to beat the storm, a reversal of the original itinerary. As passengers boarded, the captain said he had monitored the weather before the trip.

When the boat sank, the lawsuit contends it was the culmination of defective design, ignored safety and storm warnings and breaks in company protocol. It says that operators should forego water entry if there is a risk of winds greater than 35 miles per hour and waves higher than 2.5 feet. The storm warning said winds could reach up to 60 miles per hour, and the boat encountered waves as high as 4 feet.

Based on those circumstances, protocol calls for the captain to tell passengers to put on their life jackets, but that didn’t happen. During a 6:50 p.m. safety briefing the captain said passengers would not need their life jackets.

On Friday, the NTSB released an initial report following a review of video recordings, and within four minutes of being on the water, whitecaps rapidly appeared on the water and wind speeds increased around 7 p.m. The captain returned to the driver’s seat, and the driver lowered plastic curtains, but court documents say as the boat sank, the curtains and canopy entrapped the passengers and crew.

At about 7:04 p.m., a bilge alarm went off. The NTSB said the captain reached down and the bilge alarm ended.

In the final minutes of the recordings, water splashed inside the area where passengers sit. At about 7:06 p.m., the bilge alarm once again went off, and a minute later, the inward-facing camera ended while the duck boat was still on the water’s surface. A 911 call came in a 7:09 p.m. reporting that the duck boat sank and people were in the water.

There are nine counts in this lawsuit, including: two counts of Wrongful Death, two counts of Negligence, Strict Product Liability, Outrageous Conduct (punitive damages), two counts of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, and Violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

Replay the entire news conference in the video player below.