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Questioning the Missouri Duck Boat Tragedy: Are Some Answers Already Clear?

Posted on August 2, 2018
by Marianne C. LeBlanc

Marianne C. LeBlanc
I

In July, 17 people fatally drowned when a duck boat sank during a severe thunderstorm in Missouri. They were enjoying the sightseeing tour when winds poured water from the waves onto the boat, causing it to sink. Nine of the victims were members of the Coleman family. Tia Coleman lost her husband and three children ages 1, 7, and 9 years old. Her 13 year old nephew also survived.

The duck boat, which was recovered, was between 40 and 50 yards from shore. After the emotional shock, we are all asking, “How could this have happened?”

This wasn’t the first duck boat tragedy

Federal, state, and local authorities will investigate in the months and weeks ahead, but as U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri noted, this is not the first duck boat catastrophe in North America.

In 1999, the Miss Majestic sank in Arkansas, killing 13 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that several factors contributed to that tragedy, including the design of that particular duck boat.

The NTSB found that the Miss Majestic was especially susceptible to sinking quickly if it took on water. The boat’s tendency to sink quickly, combined with its canopy over the passenger compartment, made it difficult for passengers to escape when the boat flooded.  

Like most duck boats, Miss Majestic was a surplus WWII amphibious landing craft. It had been modified to comply with applicable transportation, commercial, and maritime regulations. After investigating the sinking of the Miss Majestic, the NTSB recommended that these vessels should be outfitted with watertight compartments or built-in flotation to improve their buoyancy during flooding.

Closer to home, there was a fatal duck boat accident in Boston killed a 29 year old woman who was riding a scooter in 2016. Duck boats have enormous blind spots on the road. The woman’s parents have made it a mission to push for new laws that would require duck boats to contain blind-spot cameras and sensors, and to prohibit drivers from narrating the tour while operating the vehicle.

Overall, over 40 people have been killed by duck boat accidents since 1999.

A wartime vehicle design may have unacceptable peacetime risks

Even in WWII, the duck boats were known to sink easily in bad weather, but it was an acceptable wartime risk. More recent duck boats are stretched versions of the WWII era, but the revisions don’t change the fundamental design.

At this point, news outlets have reported little about the design of the Missouri duck boat. According to the Washington Post, it was not an original, converted WWII landing craft, but a more-recently manufactured model based on the WWII design with some alterations, including a longer body. According to the manufacturer, Ride the Ducks, the boat had been updated with modern safety equipment.

It is unknown whether any of the design modifications improved the boat’s buoyancy or whether the canopy prevented passengers from escaping as it sank. But, an inspection conducted in 2017 warned the Missouri tour operators of design flaws that could stop the engine and bilge pumps from running in inclement weather.

Seven of the 17 casualties were recovered inside the boat. Four of those seven people had been pinned against the inside of the canopy, unable to get out. The canopy includes flexible plastic windows, which may have limited their escape routes.

Taking responsibility

Ride the Ducks Branson announced on their Facebook page, “Today, we continue to focus our efforts on the families. We are offering to pay for all related medical bills and funeral expenses, return all personal items from the rescue scene, and assist with any related travel or accommodations that will help the families in their time of need. An event like this deeply touches everyone and we are also providing grief counseling to our employees who have been affected by this tragic accident.”

Although the monetary support Ride the Ducks is offering is the right thing to do and seemingly coming from a good place, it will not fill that void that Tia Coleman and the other survivors are experiencing.

When people believe that negligently designed vehicles have caused injuries or death, they may seek justice in the courts. In order to prevail under Massachusetts law, an injured person must prove the vehicle failed to provide reasonable protection, and that the design of the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous such that it caused injury. These types of lawsuits often require sophisticated research, technical advice from industry professionals, and a team of experienced attorneys.

SUGARMAN attorneys have experience litigating products liability cases, as well as cases involving automobiles, airplane, and boats injuries. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury, and you suspect a negligently designed vehicle made it worse, call us at 617-542-1000, email info@sugarman.com or fill out a Contact Form.