The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the federal government lacked jurisdiction to bring criminal charges against three Ride the Ducks employees in the fatal 2018 accident on Missouri's Table Rock Lake that killed 17 people.

The 2-1 ruling by the 8th Circuit affirms a federal judge's order in December 2020 dismissing charges of misconduct and neglect against the three because the U.S. government did not have admiralty jurisdiction over the lake where Stretch Duck 7 sank July 19, 2018 – the deadliest duck boat accident ever.

The state had alleged that Capt. Kenneth Scott McKee entered the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning and failed to follow policies by not having passengers put on personal flotation devices as the boat took on water. The probable cause statement also alleged general manager Curtis Lanham and operations supervisor Charles Baltzell of Ride the Ducks Branson failed to communicate weather conditions and stop operating as the storm approached.

Each was charged with 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and McKee also was charged with 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

The 33’x8’x5’ Stretch Duck 7, built in 1944 boat and operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc., was carrying 29 passengers and two crewmembers 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) faulted Ripley for continuing the water part of the tour after the storm warning. The captain did not have any weather-monitoring tools onboard, and “his visual assessment of the lake was limited,” Brian Young, the investigator in charge, told the board. “The manager on duty and the people at the dock had the most pertinent information” to decide what to do.

The NTSB also faulted the Coast Guard for not requiring sufficient reserve buoyancy and or addressing emergency evacuation issues caused by the boat’s fixed canopy.

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