The two companies defending themselves in litigation over the tragic duck boat accident in Branson, Missouri, that killed 17 people in July invoked a maritime law from the 1800s in their argument that they owe no money to victims’ families.
The duck boat operators, Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday seeking to use the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 as a shield against more than two dozen lawsuits.
The lawsuits were filed by family members of the 17 people aboard the duck boat that sank July 19. There were 31 people aboard the vessel when it went out in Table Rock Lake for a tour ahead of a violent thunderstorm.
White-capped waves overcame the duck boat as it struggled to return to port. The heavy amphibious boat sank within seconds, trapping more than half the passengers underneath its canopy as it sank.
The obscure maritime law that the defendants are attempting to use in their defense limits financial liability of a sunken boat to the value of the boat after the incident and any cargo that was onboard. Lawyers for Ripley’s Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles say they owe the families $0 because the boat, which sank to the bottom of the lake, is now worthless and it had no freight.
As The New York Times notes, the old maritime law has been criticized for years over claims that it has been misapplied and used in ways that Congress never intended when it was passed. But while it’s not uncommon for the law to be invoked in accidents involving seagoing vessels, it angers survivors and the family members of those who perished.
Tia Coleman, who survived the duck boat sinking in Branson but lost nine of her family members, including her husband and three children, said that the companies’ attempted use of the mid-nineteenth-century law was insulting.
“Ripley’s legal claim that my husband and children are worthless is incredibly hurtful and insensitive,” Ms. Coleman said in a statement. She called for a boycott of Ripley’s attractions, which in addition to duck boat tours include Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums and other attractions.