AG: Duck boat operator cared more about profits than safety

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is suing the owners and operators of a duck boat that sank and killed 17 people, saying they had been aware of safety hazards but their “own profits” were their priority.

A Ride the Ducks Branson amphibious vessel capsized and sank July 19 on a lake near Branson, Missouri, as a severe thunderstorm whipped up intense winds and waves. The victims, aged 1 to 76, were not wearing life jackets, officials said.

In a lawsuit filed Friday under the state’s consumer protection law, Hawley asked a Taney County circuit court judge to keep Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles LLC from operating the duck boats statewide.

Hawley claims Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles have “been on notice for decades of ongoing safety hazards that posed a present and deadly danger to every person who boarded a duck boat.”

But they did not notify passengers of the dangers, the filing states, and falsely assured them “that safety was a top priority when in actuality it was their own profits.”

The crew decided to take the vessel into the water and skipped a driven tour along city streets despite the weather forecast “so that the ‘Adventure’ would be complete and no refunds would have to be provided,” the lawsuit says.

In Branson, duck boats are driven along city streets for part of the tour before the driver hands off to a captain who uses a ramp to enter the lake.

“This tragedy should not have happened,” Hawley said. “As Missouri’s top law enforcement officer, I am charged with protecting Missouri consumers. My hope is that this lawsuit will ensure that unsafe duck boats and companies who put profits ahead of safety will not continue to operate. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of safety and that was not met on July 19.”

Suzanne Smagala, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, declined to comment on the lawsuit and the ongoing investigation. She also said the company is fully cooperating with federal and state authorities.

“We are providing all documentation and materials requested in the case and are complying with all hearing procedures,” she said.

Duck boat operators under review

The duck operator and captains are also the subject of a federal criminal investigation that was initiated earlier this week.

The investigation was launched after the U.S. Coast Guard determined that the “misconduct, negligence or inattention to the duties” by the captain of the duck boat led to the victims’ deaths, according to a court document.

The tourist duck boat was prohibited from traveling on water when winds were above 35 mph, a U.S. Coast Guard certificate of inspection says.

There are several investigations into the July 19 incident, including the state of Missouri, which is looking into criminal liability, and the National Transportation Safety Board, which is trying to determine what caused the sinking.

Ripley Entertainment is also facing complaints from some of the victims’ families.

Last month, the administrators of the estates of two members of the Coleman family who died filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages from the company.

An attorney representing the victims’ estates said the boat’s canopy entrapped the passengers and dragged them to the bottom of the lake.

The passengers might have survived, the attorney said, if the Branson operators had not ignored a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that all duck boat canopies should be removed.