A federal magistrate judge has recommended that criminal charges be dismissed in a 2018 duck boat sinking during a storm on a Missouri lake that killed 17 people, including nine from the same family.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush made the recommendation on Friday, writing that a 47-count indictment against the duck boat's captain, operations supervisor and on-duty manager should be dropped because the tragedy occurred on a lake that is not considered a "navigable waterway" under federal admiralty law governing waterways and highways customarily used for commerce.
After hearing arguments from both sides of the case, Rush concluded that the federal court has no jurisdiction over the case and that it should be handled in state court.
A final decision on the case has not been made and a hearing on Rush's recommendation has yet to be scheduled.
The maritime calamity, one of the worst in American history, happened on July 19, 2018, on Table Rock Lake near Branson when the Ride the Ducks amphibious vessel owned and operated by Ripley Entertainment sank during a ferocious storm. Among those killed were nine members of the Coleman family of Indianapolis, including four children, the youngest a 1-year-old girl.
Other victims were from Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
A total of 29 passengers and two crew members were on board the Stretch Duck 7 when it experienced turbulent waters during a thunderstorm that swept into the area, officials said. In what was scheduled to be a 70-minute tour of Table Rock Lake, the duck boat was buffeted by gusts of up to 73 miles per hour and capsized by waves that crested at 6 feet, officials said.
While the pilot of the boat, Bob Williams, 73, were among those who died, the captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, survived.
McKee was indicted by a federal grand jury in November 2018. A superseding indictment unsealed in June 2019 also charged Curtis Lanham, the general manager of the boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, the manager on duty the day of the deadly trip.
All three men were indicted on numerous charges of neglect under the seaman's manslaughter statute. Each pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The earlier indictment against McKee, who had been a duck boat captain for 18 years, alleged that he failed to properly assess incoming weather before launching the boat and did not order passengers to put on life vests as the weather conditions worsened.
The National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation on April 28, 2020, concluding the vessel sank when it was flooded through an air intake hatch on the bow that was not weather tight.
The NTSB investigation also found that the tragedy could have been avoided had the U.S. Coast Guard followed recommendations to improve the safety of such tourist attractions that were made following a similar duck boat sinking in Arkansas in 1999 that killed 13 people. The Coast Guard's failure to require sufficient buoyancy in amphibious vehicles and its failure to address emergency exits on such vehicles with fixed canopies contributed to the sinking and loss of life, according to the NTSB report.
In an emotional press conference just days after the deadly voyage, Tia Coleman, who survived the sinking but lost her husband and three children in the tragic lake excursion, said when she and her family boarded the boat, the captain pointed out life jackets but said they wouldn't be needed.
"The captain did say something about life jackets," Coleman recalled. "He said, 'Above you are your life jackets. There are three sizes. He said, 'I'm gonna show you where they are, but you won't need them. So, no need to worry.' So we didn't grab them."
Ripley Entertainment has settled numerous lawsuits stemming from the tragedy, including a $100 million federal lawsuit filed in Kansas City, Missouri, by lawyers representing the Coleman family.