Children of Higginsville couple who drowned on Duck Boat file wrongful death lawsuit

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HIGGINSVILLE, Mo. -- Three daughters of a Higginsville couple who died when a duck boat sank at Table Rock Lake have filed a lawsuit against the companies involved in its operation and two crew members.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed Monday in Taney County Circuit Court by Missouri residents Michelle Chaffer, Christina Taylor and Rebekah Wittington, seeking more than $125,000 in damages. Their parents, William and Janice Bright, of Higginsville, Missouri, were on the duck boat that sank July 19 on Table Rock Lake.

Read the entire lawsuit here.

The lawsuit names Ride the Ducks International, Ripley Entertainment Inc. and operators Kenneth McKee and Robert Williams as defendants. Williams died in the incident.

It was filed a day after attorneys filed a federal lawsuit for two members of an Indiana family who had nine relatives die. That lawsuit seeks $100 million in damages.

In 1996, then owner of Ride the Ducks International, Robert McDowell, redesigned the duck boats, lengthening them to fit more passengers.

According to the lawsuit, he did not have engineering, design or other mechanical training. In a previous deposition, McDowell admitted that he simply got some ideas by consulting with a football coach, someone at an auto parts store and someone at a U-Haul store.

That led to what the lawsuit calls a string of disasters because it was a flawed design that was never corrected by the current owners.

"Without a doubt what happened here, they put profit over lives," said Adam Graves, an attorney who represents the Bright's daughters.

"It has been devastating and to add insult to injury the family was already grieving and then Mr. Pattison, the president of Ripley Entertainment, comes out and says it is a tragic incident, but this storm came out of nowhere,” Graves said. “Well, we know at this time that that statement could not be farther from the truth."

On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board released a timeline that directly contradicts Pattison's statement.

Among other things, the NTSB found that before the passengers were loaded, a representative from the duck boat company boarded the boat to tell the captain and driver to alter their tour because of an impending storm.

A few minutes later, a severe thunderstorm warning was announced for Table Rock Lake. Despite that warning, 20 minutes later that boat, called Stretch Duck 07, entered the water with 29 passengers and two crew members aboard.

"So essentially they were attempting to beat this storm and in fact they did not last more than 9 minutes in the water before the boat sank," Graves said.

Each time, the NTSB and U.S. Coast Guard, who investigated the incidents, recommended safety improvements, including that the company improve buoyancy or remove the windows and top and require passengers to wear life vests.

"The reason for that is, hey, if you are going to have a boat that sinks, at least if it sinks people aren’t trapped by a roof and they have life jackets on,” said Graves. “In that type of situation every one of these people would have still been alive had they followed any of the recommendations by the N.T.S.B."

Boat re-designer Robert McDowell is not named in the lawsuit because he sold the company years ago, and Graves feels like the current owners are responsible for not taking the NTSB and Coast Guard recommendations and fixing the problems.

Ripley Entertainment, the owner of Ride the Ducks of Branson, says it remains "deeply saddened" that its boat sank, killing 17 people.

Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala said in a statement Monday that the company would not comment further because a National Transportation Safety Board investigation is continuing and no conclusions have been reached.

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