Table Rock Lake not a 'navigable' waterway
Table Rock Lake not a 'navigable' waterway
Plaintiffs suing the companies that operated and manufactured the duck boat that capsized during a July 2018 storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson, killing 17 people, have secured a key victory in their litigation.
On Nov. 27, U.S. District Judge M. Douglas Harpool dismissed claims by duck boat operators Branson Duck Vehicles LLC and Ripley Entertainment Inc. that admiralty jurisdiction applies in the case.
The ruling allows the plaintiffs to seek damages beyond the value of the vessel itself, an amphibious boat modeled after a World War II craft used to transport troops from sea to land.
It also has already prompted an appeal in the case, which could result in the first 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on the lake’s navigability — a determination at the heart of whether admiralty law applies — in more than 30 years.
Thirty-one people were aboard when the boat took on water and sank in the lake during inclement weather. Family members of the deceased filed claims against the defendants beginning in late July 2018.
In October 2018, duck boat defendants filed their complaint under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 seeking exoneration from or limitation of liability for the incident.
Harpool issued an injunction putting the families’ suits on hold until the jurisdiction issue — whether Missouri law or admiralty law applied — was cleared up.
In order for admiralty law to apply, a disputed action must occur on navigable waters, and the activity must be connected to a traditional maritime activity. Generally, the standard for determining navigability is whether the body of water in question is capable of supporting interstate commerce.
Harpool concluded that Table Rock Lake is not a navigable waterway.
“While the Court acknowledges the record before it is extensive regarding the current recreational and tourist activity on Table Rock Lake, there is no meaningful evidence of trade or transportation activity such as to make the lake a ‘highway for commerce,’” he said.
Harpool said the 8th Circuit also has previously ruled that admiralty jurisdiction does not exist on the lake. He cited the court’s 1984 ruling in Edwards v. Hurtel.
“The Court acknowledges the Eighth Circuit’s opinion in Edwards was guided by judicially noticed facts from the district court,” he said. “However, this Court does not have authority to overrule the Eighth Circuit’s decision in Edwards that Table Rock Lake is not a navigable waterway.”
Harpool also said the lake fails a test of contemporary navigability. He said while the lake’s shores touch two different states, the test requires more than recreational boating and tourist activity.
“No tug boats, barges or ferries operate on the lake, and it would not be economically feasible for any to do so,” he said. “Table Rock Lake is, instead, a recreational lake used for fishing, water sports and recreation.”
Harpool additionally ruled that Ride the Ducks International, another defendant facing products liabilities claims as the duck boat’s manufacturer, lacks standing under the protections of the Limitation of Liability Act.
The company argued that the act should apply to it because it invested time and money in the boat as a previous owner. Harpool disagreed and dismissed the company’s complaint.
Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley Entertainment filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 2. The companies also are asking Harpool to keep his earlier injunction from November 2018 in place pending appeal.
Gregory W. Aleshire of Aleshire Robb & Rapp in Springfield is local counsel for the Rose-Coleman family of Indianapolis, which lost nine of 11 family members who were on the boat when it capsized.
He said he believes Harpool’s ruling is correct.
“I think whether you look at the 8th Circuit precedent or you look at the elements in the cases, I don’t think that it meets the true definition of navigability under the statute and the case law,” he said.
To date, 30 of the 31 parties have settled their claims against Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley’s Entertainment. One pending case remains in Stone County Circuit Court.
However, the plaintiffs’ products liabilities claims remain live against manufacturers Ride the Ducks International and the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation, Aleshire said.
Andrew D. Ryan of Sandberg, Phoenix & von Gontard in St. Louis represents Ride the Ducks International. He declined to comment on the ruling.
Local counsel for Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley’s Entertainment include Jean Paul Bradshaw II of Lathrop Gage in Kansas City and Terrance J. Good of Lashly & Baer in St. Louis. Neither responded to requests for comment.
The case is Branson Duck Vehicles LLC et al. v. Ripley Entertainment Inc. et al., 6:18-cv-03339.