Jury Awards $123M to Victims in Washington Duck Boat Crash

February 11, 2019

A Washington jury has awarded about $123 million to the victims and families of a 2015 duck boat crash that killed five college students and injured more than 60 others in Seattle.

After a four-month civil trial, King County Superior Court jurors found that Ride The Ducks International bore 67 to 70 percent of the responsibility for the crash, The Seattle Times reported.

The company, based in Branson, Mo., is the manufacturer of the Duck amphibious vehicle that crossed the centerline of the Aurora Bridge and rammed into a charter bus full of international college students in 2015.

The jury found that tour vehicle operator Ride The Ducks of Seattle was 30 to 33 percent at fault.

Two additional defendants, the city of Seattle and the state of Washington, were found not to be at fault.

The 2016 lawsuit, filed on behalf of 40 people who were injured or killed in the crash, claimed the former owner of Ride The Ducks International improvised flawed fixes for the World War II-era vehicles.

Ride The Ducks of Seattle failed to properly inspect and maintain the vehicle, the suit claimed. In particular, the plaintiffs argued, the company ignored a 2013 service bulletin from the manufacturer warning of a flaw in the axle and recommending a fix.

Attorney Jack Snyder of Ride The Ducks International claimed the company had identified the problem before the crash and issued an alert to other Duck-vehicle operators.

All other Ducks licensees and franchisees, except for Seattle, made the fix, he said.

Ride The Ducks of Seattle claimed that Ride The Ducks International peppered it with service bulletins and had a welding expert testify that the fix would not have prevented the axle failure that caused the crash.

The crash killed North Seattle College international students Claudia Derschmidt, 49, of Austria; Privando Putradanto, 18, of Indonesia; Runjie Song, 17, of China; Mami Sato, 36, of Japan; and HaRam Kim, 20, of South Korea.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board determined the collision occurred after the front axle broke off the ducks vehicle due to improper manufacturing by Ride The Ducks International and improper maintenance by Ride The Ducks Seattle.

After the incident, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission suspended the local company from operating its 20 tourist vehicles. Ducks Seattle later acknowledged 159 critical safety violations and agreed to pay $222,000 in penalties to settle the state complaint before resuming operations.

The Missouri-based Ducks company agreed to pay up to $1 million in civil fines for violating federal safety regulations. Last year, both Ducks companies settled a suit for $8.25 million that was filed on behalf of four plaintiffs, including the family of one passenger who was killed.

In her closing argument, attorney Karen Koehler listed the names of her 40 clients, outlined their injuries and talked about what was taken from them. She asked jurors to award each victim $3 million or more.

Attorneys for the two Ducks companies emphasized in their closings the need for jurors to be reasonable and fair in awarding damages.

Most of the damages awarded Thursday, if not all, will be paid by the insurance companies that underwrite the companies. Awards to plaintiffs will vary.

Ride The Ducks said in a statement last week that officials have made a series of changes to their vehicles and have removed the Aurora Bridge from their route.

“Ride The Ducks of Seattle owners, management and team members have always wanted to do right by everyone affected by the accident, but have been limited by constraints in the legal process,” it said, adding that the jury’s verdict moved it one closer to that goal.

Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past.

Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2018, 17 people drowned when a duck boat was swamped in a sudden storm in Branson, Missouri.

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