A federal judge has dismissed charges of misconduct and neglect against three employees in a fatal duck boat accident on a Missouri lake not considered a navigable waterway.
U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool last week adopted a recommendation that the government did not have admiralty jurisdiction over Table Rock Lake where Stretch Duck 7 sank in 2018 killing 17 people — the deadliest duck boat accident ever.
Capt. Kenneth Scott McKee, general manager Curtis Lanham and operations supervisor Charles Baltzell of Ride the Ducks Branson were charged in a 47-count indictment with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty. The indictment alleged Lanham created a work atmosphere on the boats “where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety.” All three pleaded not guilty.
The captain was originally charged with a number of violations including not properly assessing the weather and going out with lightning in the area, not telling passengers to put on personal flotation devices and failing to raise the side curtains when the wind picked up thus creating a barrier for people to escape.
The boat, operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc., was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members for what was usually a 20-minute ride on the lake near Branson, Mo., when a strong thunderstorm swept through with winds over 70 mph.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in April faulted Ripley for continuing the water part of the tour after the storm warning and the Coast Guard for not requiring sufficient reserve buoyancy and or addressing emergency evacuation issues caused by the boat’s fixed canopy. The Coast Guard has convened a Marine Board of Investigation into the accident.
The recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush in September notes that the government argued it had admiralty jurisdiction over the negligent operation of a vessel charges. But he concluded “that admiralty subject matter jurisdiction does not extend to Table Rock Lake, which is not navigable as a matter of law,” and any criminal prosecution should be in state court.
Under the Constitution, “federal courts have limited jurisdiction. General police powers over crimes rightfully belong to the states,” he said. “If defendants are to be prosecuted for the tragedy on Table Rock Lake, the law requires that the prosecution be handled at the state level, and not in federal court.”
Prosecutors could appeal Judge Harpool’s decision. Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City, said they would not comment on the case.
“While the events of July 19, 2018, remain an unfortunate accident and tragedy we are pleased that both Judge Harpool and Magistrate Judge Rush have sustained the admiralty dismissal motion,” McKee’s attorneys, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller, said in a statement.