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Branson Duck Boat Operators Use 19th-Century Law to Try Escaping Liability

— October 17, 2018

Two companies involved in the summer’s Branson, MO duck boat tragedy are invoking a 19th-century law in an attempt to avoid legal damages. The July incident claimed 17 lives—nine of the dead were from a single family.

The 1851 maritime law brought about by defendants Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley Entertainment limits or eliminates liability for the operators of watercraft and seafaring vessels.

Called the Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act, the legislation limits damages to the ‘salvaged value’ of a sunken vessel.

“The law was intended to bolster a fledgling maritime shipping industry,” maritime attorney Daniel Rose told the Springfield News-Leader in July. “Congress was trying to encourage people to buy vessels and improve the maritime system. This was 1850, there was no insurance for maritime vessels. The incentive was that if you go ahead and buy a vessel, we’re going to protect you if anything goes wrong.”

Both companies deny any negligence or wrongdoing.

A ‘Ride the Ducks’ boat in Branson, MO. Picture taken in 2017. Photo credit to David Wills/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-4.0)

But, as the Indianapolis Star reports, the two defendants believe that any official finding of negligence would render them liability-free. That’s because, as they say, “the Vessel was a total loss and has no current value. No freight was pending on the Vessel.”

The vessel—an amphibious bus-boat hybrid—was allegedly in poor repair and lacked legally-required safety features.

Lawyers for Tia Coleman, who lost nine relatives in Branson, said the move was “callous and calculated.”

“Ripley’s claim that my husband and children are worthless is incredibly hurtful and insensitive,” Coleman said in a statement. “Anyone who cares about people or has any human decency should boycott Ripley and their attractions.”

Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said, “Ripley’s inhuman legal ploy will sink as fast as their death-trap boat did. We will legally and factually demolish this frivolous claim.”

Ripley, writes the Star, has defended its maneuver. They say the invocation of old-timey law is “common in claims related to maritime incidents. It allows multiple court procedures to be carried out at the same time, with the aim of a swift resolution for everyone affected by the accident. While this filing may limit the company’s liability, we are filing this request at the same time we are actively pursuing mediation and settlement with those most affected, and have already scheduled, or are in the process of scheduling mediations.”

Rose says the defendants’ desire to use the 19th-century Shipowner’s Act isn’t unusual.

“Fast-forward two centuries, it’s still on the books,” he said. “It comes up in every one of these major high-profile disasters.”

Mongeluzzi says he’s yet to receive any settlement offers from Ripley or Branson Ducks. He’s seeking $100 million for Coleman and another plaintiff.

Along with financial damages, Mongeluzzi has demanded that the courts take action and put Missouri duck boat operators permanently out of business.


Firms Cite Law in Missouri Boat Accident, Seek Mediation

How an 1851 law is being used to deny liability in the duck boat tragedy

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