A criminal investigation has been launched into the Duck Boat mishap near Branson that killed 17 out of 31 aboard and has triggered two lawsuits.

Missouri State Highway Patrol crews assist the U.S. Coast Guard during the Duck boat recovery efforts on July 23, 2018 (photo courtesy of the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Twitter page)

Mary Compton of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s Office confirmed to Missourinet that a probe is underway over the accident in which a Duck Boat sank while taking on four-foot waves during hurricane force winds July 19th on Table Rock Lake.

Compton said the state is working with investigators to determine if criminal charges should be brought under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.  The half-century-old law that prohibits deceptive and unfair practices in business is also cited in one of nine courts in a $100 million lawsuit filed against the Duck Boat operators Sunday in federal court in Kansas City.

That suit was brought by attorneys representing the estates of two members of the Rose Coleman family who were among nine relatives who died in the tragedy.  The attorneys indicated in a Monday news conference that they had filed paperwork to bring additional litigation.

Meanwhile, a separate civil case was filed Monday in Taney County by lawyers representing three daughters of a couple, William and Janice Bright, who drowned in the incident.  Both lawsuits name the operation’s current owner, Ripley Entertainment and former owner, Ride the Ducks International, as defendants.

Among other things, the federal filing alleges shortcomings and deliberate oversights led to the mishap.  It says the defendants had been told that design flaws in the Duck Boats made them more susceptible to sinking.  It contends that despite being aware of impending severe weather conditions, Ripley intentionally decided to take the Duck Boat out onto Table Rock Lake instead of canceling the tour and refunding the patrons’ money.

The federal suit also states that the defendants had been repeatedly told over two decades to change the design of their Duck Boats to make them safer, but they entirely ignored these warnings.  It further states that prior to purchasing the Branson operations, Ripley hired an inspector, Steven Paul, who warned the Duck Boats’ engines and the bilge pumps that remove water from their hulls might fail in bad weather due to the improper placement of the boats’ exhaust system.

The court document said Mr. Paul told the defendants that “in rough conditions, water could get into the exhaust system, and then into the motor, cutting it off”, which were the exact conditions faced by the vehicle on Table Rock Lake.

Compton didn’t specify to Missourinet what practices or actions the attorney general’s office was probing under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

At a news conference Monday, Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi who’s leading plaintiffs in the federal case, indicated a criminal investigation could be warranted.  He noted the Duck Boat operators continue to the equip the vehicles with canopy roofs that are known to trap people underneath when sinking.

“I’m not going to comment this case,” said Mongeluzzi.  “But certainly the conduct of taking that out when you know canopies trap and drown people into an approaching storm is conduct certainly somebody should be looking at.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)issued a report in 2002 after investigating a 1999 Duck Boat sinking that killed 13 of 21 aboard during a storm on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas.  It blamed the death toll partially on the canopy roofs that tends to entrap people.

Mongeluzzi also referenced a Friday report released by the NTSB after its examination of the digital video recorder camera from the the boat that sank on Table Rock Lake.  The footage revealed that the Duck Boat’s captain, Kenneth McKee, “was told to take the water portion of the tour first by an individual who briefly stepped onto the rear of the vehicle,” the NTSB said. The agency did not identify that person.

Mongeluzzi said the action proves the Duck Boat operator prioritized profits over the safety of passengers.  “It is clear that they knew severe weather was coming and they tried to beat the storm by going on water first rather than refunding the 40 bucks that each of these people pay,” Mongeluzzi said.

The Philadephia based attorney said it’s known from previous litigation that Duck Boat policy is to not go out on water if severe weather is approaching.  Mongeluzzi’s law firm, Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, secured a $17 million settlement for victims in a Duck Boat incident on the Delaware River in Philadelphia in 2010.