Multiple suits against Ride the Ducks

There have been multiple headlines in the last few weeks regarding suits against Ride the Ducks arising out of injuries to tour passengers or other drivers on the road.

Yesterday, days into a federal wrongful death trial that was expected to last a month, a $17 million settlement was reached with the surviving families of two killed and others injured on a Ride the Ducks tour in Philadelphia. The families of two Hungarian students killed will split $15 million and eighteen surviving passengers will share in $2 million in the deal.

The Hungarian students, whose group was visiting the U.S. through a church exchange program, drowned when their amphibious sightseeing boat was slammed by an empty sludge barge and capsized on July 7, 2010. Their families filed wrongful-death lawsuits against K-Sea Transportation, of East Brunswick, N.J., which operated the tugboat guiding the barge upriver, and Ride the Ducks, of Norcross, Ga., which operated the tour boat. The tug pushed the 250-foot-long barge into and over the 33-foot-long Duck as it sat idle and anchored in an active shipping lane along its route, sending 37 people into the river about 150 feet from the Philadelphia shoreline. Survivors were pulled from the murky water by firefighters, a passing ferry boat and bystanders who swam from shore. In a video shown on the first day of the trial Monday, one of the students killed could be seen throwing a life jacket to a deckhand who jumped from the boat seconds before the collision and survived. The families of the victims argued the boat companies were rife with unclear safety policies and ineffective training and procedures that caused the crash. K-Sea Transportation and Ride the Ducks blamed each other and the tug pilot who was sentenced in November to a year in prison for the crash. The tug pilot was on his cell phone amid a family emergency, moved to a part of the tug that blocked his view of the river and turned down a marine radio, stifling mayday calls before the allision. He pleaded guilty to the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.

With the backdrop of the multi-million dollar settlement in Philadelphia hitting the national stage, a motorcyclist injured by a Ride the Ducks tour in Seattle filed suit on Wednesday. The victim and his motorcycle were run over and dragged by a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle loaded with tourists in downtown Seattle last October. If not for pedestrians who witnessed the collision and screamed at the Duck driver while pounding on the sides of the boat, the motorcyclist believes he could have been dragged for blocks, instead of yards.

The Oct. 10 incident is the third since December 2010 involving Ducks rear-ending other vehicles that had been stopped at stop lights, according to Seattle police collision reports. On Dec. 31, 2010, and again last June 11, different Duck drivers rear-ended passenger vehicles, the first at Third Avenue and Pike Street and the second at Aurora Avenue North and Denny Way. No one was injured but both Duck drivers told officers they didn’t see the cars because of the height of their own vehicles.

The case filed Wednesday raises issues of the appropriateness of the Duck tour vehicles, originally built for military use, on city streets due their huge hulls and faulty sightlines which make them a hazard to other vehicles. Duck drivers are expected to play “tour guide and entertainer” from behind the wheel, creating even more of a danger given the size and maneuverability of the half-bus-half-boat vehicles.

Although these two cases both involved injuries caused by Ride the Ducks, they show an important distinction between maritime and terrestrial law. For example, the suit arising out of the Philadelphia allision on navigable waters was brought in admiralty and the victims and surviving families of those killed had the benefit of certain maritime laws, potentially in addition to state law. In contrast, the suit filed yesterday in Seattle does not arise out of events occurring in the water segment of the Duck tour and thus will not have the benefit of maritime law. Rather, the plaintiff’s remedies will likely be found under state law.