Shipowner in Duck Boat Disaster Cannot Use Maritime Law to Limit Claims

On July 19, 2018, a duck boat accident resulted in the deaths of seventeen people out of 31 people on board including 16 passengers and one crew member. The Branson, Missouri disaster has an interesting twist, however, because a United States District Judge found that Admiralty Jurisdiction does not apply to Table Rock Lake, where the duck boat sank, due to a thunderstorm, killing 17. 

A duck boat is an amphibious tourist boat originally used during WWII and the Korean War. After these wars duck boats were repurposed for leisure cruises in small bodies of water. 

The owner of the Branson duck boat cited an 1851 maritime law that limits a vessel’s damages in an accident to the value of the sunken boat, which in this case amounts to zero. However, Judge Doug Harpool said in his ruling that the law did not apply to Table Rock Lake because it was not a navigable waterway, as defined by the law. 

Victims’ families attempted mediation and all but one of the 33 cases filed against the shipowner was settled. The remaining family members pursued the action and brought it to court where the ruling took place.  

A criminal investigation into the accident was launched by Attorney General Josh Hawley. A federal civil suit alleges that the crew members of the Branson duck boat operated in an unsafe manner by ignoring a thunderstorm warning that morning. The death toll resulting from the boat capsizing made it the deadliest accident involving a duck boat in North America.