Tia Coleman is calling the defense of Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley Entertainment “callous and calculated” following a duck boat accident on July 19, 2018. Nine of Coleman’s family members and eight others were killed when the amphibious boat capsized during a storm. Ten days later, Coleman and her attorneys filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the two companies, but the defendants have cited an 1851 law known as the Shipowners’ Limitation of Liability Act.
According to the law, a shipowner may limit damage claims following an accident to the value of the vessel and any pending freight so long as he can prove that he lacked knowledge of the vessel’s problem beforehand. Because the duck boat in question was a total loss with no value following the accident and there was no pending freight, Ripley and Branson’s attorneys are claiming zero liability. Needless to say, the 167-year-old law was originally written for a different purpose. At the time, maritime insurance did not exist. Thus, in creating the law, Congress hoped to encourage vessel purchases and maritime transport by guaranteeing protection for sea-vessel owners in case of an accident.
Following a Coast Guard investigation of the accident, probable cause of negligence was found on the part of the boat’s captain, though the defense contests this finding. On the basis of the finding, Coleman and her attorneys filed an additional federal lawsuit in September against the boat’s operator and manufacturer. “This tragedy was the predictable and predicated result of decades of unacceptable, greed-driven and will ignorance of safety by the boat industry,” the suit states. If such an argument holds and the accident is proven to have been the “predictable” result of “willful ignorance”, it is possible that the Shipowners’ Limitation of Liability Act will be deemed inapplicable in this particular case.