Two companies that operated the Missouri tourist boat that sank during a storm in July, killing 17 people, have invoked a 19th century federal maritime law to claim that they owe no money to the victims’ family members who have filed multiple lawsuits.
The operators, Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday, seeking to take advantage of an 1851 law that could limit their financial liability to the duck boat’s value after the crash and any cargo that was on board. The vessel, which sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is now worthless and had no freight, so the companies owe $0, their lawyers argued.
While shipowners routinely seek such protections in accidents and the families’ lawyers anticipated the legal maneuver, the filing by the companies angered survivors and the victims’ family members. Tia Coleman, who escaped the sinking boat but who lost nine relatives, including her husband and three children, said that she was insulted and called for a boycott of Ripley Entertainment, which operates numerous tourist attractions, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
“Ripley’s legal claim that my husband and children are worthless is incredibly hurtful and insensitive,” Ms. Coleman, who has filed lawsuits seeking $100 million in damages, said in a statement.
A lawyer representing her, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, said he would file a response in court arguing that the maritime law does not apply in this case. It has been cited after high-profile accidents throughout American history, including in lawsuits involving the sinking of the Titanic and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“They are saying that the lives that they killed are worthless,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said in an interview on Thursday. “As you might imagine, it has been incredibly hurtful to the families who lost loved ones.”
The companies’ petition, filed in the United States District Court of Western Missouri, seeks to limit what they could owe and to combine all of the lawsuits in the accident into one federal court case.
A spokeswoman for Ripley called the legal request “common in claims related to maritime incidents.”
“While this filing may limit the company’s liability, we are filing this request at the same time we are actively pursuing mediation and settlement with those most affected, and have already scheduled, or are in the process of scheduling, mediations,” the spokeswoman, Suzanne Smagala-Potts, said in an email.
More than two dozen lawsuits, filed in both federal and state court, have been brought against Ripley, which owns the Ride the Ducks operation on Table Rock Lake, or Branson Duck Vehicles, which owned the boat that sank. The boat capsized on July 19 while it tried to navigate choppy water and rain as a thunderstorm moved through southwestern Missouri. Of the 31 people on board, 17 died.
The law at the center of the case, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, has been criticized for years over claims that it has been misapplied and used in ways that Congress did not envision when it was passed. The law was enacted to protect American shipowners competing with foreign vessels at a time in the mid-19th century when modern insurance did not exist and other countries had similar laws and booming trade.
The law includes provisions that could undercut the duck boat operators’ claims that they are not financially liable, said Robert Force, a professor of maritime law at Tulane University.
Companies must prove they had no prior knowledge of negligence or unseaworthy conditions that could have contributed to the accident. Both companies made such a claim in court, but they may not hold up, Mr. Force said.
“Even though management may not have been involved in the individual decision, if management didn’t have rules and regulations for their employees with respect to not taking the boat out under certain conditions, that would be enough to rule it out,” Mr. Force said in an interview on Thursday.
Another lawyer for Ms. Coleman, Jeffrey P. Goodman, said he would focus his legal response on another requirement of the 1851 law: It applies only in accidents on “navigable waters.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in 1983 that Table Rock Lake was “not navigable” because it was “used exclusively for recreational activities.”
That case was brought by a man injured in a boating accident on the lake. The Eighth Circuit’s characterization of the lake has been criticized in recent years as outdated because of the commercial activity that takes place on it, which includes tourist boat rides.
Nonetheless, Mr. Goodman said the court’s ruling hurts the companies’ ability to invoke the 1851 law.
“Table Rock Lake is not navigable,” Mr. Goodman said. “They are going to have to overcome that.”
In spite of the court filing, Ms. Smagala-Potts said, Ripley has offered to mediate the victims’ claims in an effort to avoid lengthy litigation.
Mr. Mongeluzzi said that Ripley had offered to enter mediation but had not detailed any potential settlements. “Our plaintiffs are analyzing how we will respond to that,” he said.