Judge says dismiss case against duck boat operators charged in Table Rock Lake tragedy
A federal judge is recommending criminal charges be dismissed against three Ripley Entertainment employees implicated after the 2018 duck boat sinking on Table Rock Lake in which 17 people drowned.
In a court filing issued Friday, Judge David Rush recommended that a motion to dismiss filed on behalf of the three employees be granted because Table Rock Lake is not a navigable waterway under federal law, and therefore federal court is not the proper jurisdiction for the case.
It will be up to another judge whether to adopt Judge Rush's recommendation regarding the cases against duck boat captain Kenneth McKee, Ride the Ducks Branson General Manager Curtis P. Lanham and the company's operations supervisor Charles V. Baltzell.
McKee, Lanham and Baltzell were indicted in 2019 on multiple counts related to the reckless operation of a vessel and violations of laws known commonly as the Seaman's manslaughter statute.
The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri had accused the defendants of prioritizing profits over safety when they put the amphibious Stretch Duck 7 vessel on the water on the evening of July 19, 2018, despite warnings that severe weather was approaching.
A fast-moving storm over the lake ended up sending large waves at the duck boat full of tourists, which took on water and sank. Sixteen passengers and one crew member died. There were 14 survivors.
Tom Bath and Tricia Bath, the husband and wife lawyers who represented Lanham, told the Associated Press the boat’s sinking was "a terrible tragedy." But they said they believed it "was caused by a once in a lifetime storm and not as a result of actions or the failure to act on the part of Curtis or any other employees."
Justin Johnston, an attorney for Baltzell, said Judge Rush got it right.
"We believe the court was correct in recommending dismissal of the charges due to lack of jurisdiction," Johnston said in an email. "In any event, the tragic sinking of Stretch Duck 7 was an accident brought about by unprecedented wind and water conditions at Table Rock Lake, and not the fault of any of the charged individuals. Mr. Baltzell is innocent."
Ripley Entertainment, which ran the duck boat operation, was hit with dozens of lawsuits in the wake of the tragedy, which it settled.
In the civil cases, a different federal judge, Doug Harpool, made the same ruling that Table Rock Lake was not a "navigable waterway" under federal law in deciding the 1851 Shipowners Limitation of Liability Act did not apply.
Harpool will be the one who decides whether or not to adopt Rush's recommendation to dismiss the criminal charges.
In Friday's court filing, Judge Rush cited that even though Table Rock Lake crosses into two states (Missouri and Arkansas), navigable waterways should be "highways for commerce" and he did not believe Table Rock Lake fit that description.
Stone County prosecutor Matt Selby did not immediately respond to an inquiry Tuesday morning about whether he would pursue criminal charges against McKee, Lanham and Baltzell in state court if the federal cases are dismissed.