Two companies facing multiple lawsuits over a summer tourist boat accident in Missouri that killed 17 people have invoked an 1851 law that allows vessel owners to try to avoid or limit legal damages as they also seek settlement negotiations with victims' family members, the AP reports. But Tia Coleman, an Indiana woman who survived the accident, and lawyers for others whose family members died denounced the filing Monday by attorneys for Ripley Entertainment Inc., based in Orlando, Florida, and Branson Duck Vehicles of Branson, Missouri, as callous and insulting. The companies' filing was in federal court in western Missouri, where multiple lawsuits are pending. "Ripley's inhuman legal ploy will sink as fast as their death trap duck boat did," Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney representing accident victims, said in a statement Monday night. "We will legally and factually demolish this frivolous claim."
If a judge concluded that the federal law cited by Ripley and Branson Duck Vehicles applies, claims for damages over the July 19 accident on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, could be consolidated into a single federal court case. The companies' petition states that under the federal law, they would not owe any damages because the boat carried no freight and was a total loss. Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said the type of filing made Monday is "common in claims related to maritime incidents." She said the goal is to delay the multiple court cases to give the parties time for mediation. "We have reached out to those most impacted by the accident and offered to mediate their claims now," Smagala-Potts said in a statement. "Mediation often leads to faster resolution and allows those affected to avoid a lengthy process of litigation, and most importantly, begin the healing process." But Mongeluzzi said there have been no settlement offers. (Video shows that the trip went from calm to frantic.)