Members of a family who lost nine relatives after a tourist boat sank in a Missouri lake filed a $100 million lawsuit on Sunday, saying that the accident was predictable and could have been avoided. They are represented by a lawyer who has sued operators of similar boats in the past and has called for them to be banned.
Seventeen people died earlier this month when the duck boat, which was modeled after amphibious vehicles used in World War II, took on water during a storm on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. Fourteen people on the boat survived.
The federal lawsuit filed in Kansas City, Mo., accused companies connected to the boat of negligence, including ignoring reports of an approaching storm and doing little to improve a boat design that federal authorities had years earlier found to be susceptible to sinking.
“This tragedy was the predictable and predicted result of decades of unacceptable, greed-driven and willful ignorance of safety by the duck boat industry in the face of specific and repeated warnings that their duck boats are death traps for passengers and pose grave danger to the public on water and on land,” the lawsuit said.
The suit was filed on behalf of the estates of Ervin Coleman, 76, and his great-nephew, 2-year-old Maxwell Ly, who both died along with seven other members of their Indianapolis family when the duck boat sank on July 19. Two family members survived.
The Coleman family’s lead lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi of Philadelphia, has long been an outspoken critic of duck boats. He represented families of victims in two previous fatal duck boat accidents, both in Philadelphia.
In 2010, a duck boat stalled in a shipping channel and was struck by a tugboat towing a barge. Two people were killed. In 2015, a duck boat struck and killed a pedestrian on a city street. Mr. Mongeluzzi won settlements for the families in both cases.
Duck boats have become popular tourist attractions around the nation. But they also have been involved in other fatal accidents during the past two decades, both on roads and in the water.
In May 1999, a duck boat sunk on an Arkansas lake near Hot Springs, Ark., killing 13 people, including three children. A National Transportation Safety Board report on that accident warned operators to add flotation equipment and equip their vehicles with sufficient pumping power to keep them afloat when they begin to flood.
It is not clear whether operators of the boats followed the recommendations, which were not binding.
Mr. Mongeluzzi said duck boats have escaped appropriate scrutiny because a variety of entities, including the Coast Guard and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are responsible for regulating an industry that functions on land and in water.
“There is sort of a gray area for duck boats,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said. “Nobody has stepped up to regulate duck boats — not the Coast Guard, not the industry.”
The Coleman family’s lawsuit named Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks and other companies that the plaintiffs said held responsibility for the accident. Last year, Ripley Entertainment acquired the Ride the Ducks attraction in Branson.
“Despite being aware of impending severe weather conditions,” the lawsuit stated, “Ripley intentionally decided to take the Duck Boat out onto Table Rock Lake instead of canceling the tour and refunding the patrons’ money.”
Suzanne Smagala, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, said Monday that the company had no comment on the lawsuit.
“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families,” Ms. Smagala said in a statement. “The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still underway, and no conclusions have been reached.”
The Coleman family’s lawsuit stated that an inspection of the boats in Branson took place in August of last year. That inspection, the lawsuit said, had concluded that the vehicles’ engines and bilge pumps “might fail in bad weather due to the improper placement of the boats’ exhaust system.”
It was not clear how the company responded to the inspection or whether those issues played a role in the accident this month.
The N.T.S.B. and the Coast Guard are conducting separate investigations of the Branson incident; both are expected to take months.
An N.T.S.B. timeline of the accident — using information from the boat’s data recorder — showed that it took five minutes between the time that the boat entered the lake on calm water until winds increased significantly and whitecaps suddenly appeared.
Before the storm hit, the water apparently seemed placid enough that the boat’s captain allowed children to try out the captain’s seat as the vessel moved onto the lake, the N.T.S.B. timeline showed.
The boat sank moments later.
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