SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Attorneys representing Indianapolis families whose relatives drowned at Table Rock Lake while on a "Ride the Ducks" tour filed a lawsuit Sunday against Ripley Entertainment alleging wrongful death, outrageous conduct and negligence. The lawsuit filed in federal court 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.
The duck boat carrying 31 people sank after taking on too much water during a storm, and 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.
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.
Earlier on Sunday, FOX4 received notice that trial attorney Robert Mongeluzzi is holding a news conference on Monday at 10:30 a.m. Mongeluzzi is listed in this lawsuit as "pending admission" and has litigated other wrongful death suits involving duck boats. We will live stream the news conference on Facebook and at fox4kc.com.