Federal Charges In Duck Boat Accident Dropped: Table Rock Lake ‘Not Navigable Waterway’

A federal magistrate ruled September 4 that charges against a “duck boat” captain charged with negligence in a July 19, 2018, storm-related accident on Table Rock Lake that resulted in the deaths of 17 people, including nine from the same family, will have to be dismissed.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush wrote that because the lake in Branson, Mo., does not meet the federal definition of a “navigable waterway,” a federal court has no jurisdiction. A spokesman for the Western District of Missouri told local media the recommendation was being reviewed. Judge Doug Harpool of the Western District must rule on the recommendation. The government could appeal the dismissal. If federal charges are dismissed, the captain could still be charged in state court.

The lake disaster, considered one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history, resulted from a storm that quickly sprung up with violent straight-line winds clocked at up to 73 mph. The Stretch Duck 7, which was carrying 31 people, was capsized by waves that crested up to 6 feet. Capt. Kenneth McKee survived, but the pilot, 73-year-old Bob Williams, died. The captain and the shoreside manager, who was charged with not relaying a severe weather forecast to the captain, were charged under a federal maritime statute along with the general manager of Ride the Ducks Branson. All pleaded not guilty.

In April of this year, the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on the incident, partly blaming the Coast Guard for failing to implement earlier NTSB safety recommendations following a 1999 duck boat accident that killed 13 people.

The boat’s then operator, Ripley Entertainment, owner of Ride the Ducks Branson, has settled numerous civil lawsuits from families of the victims. The incident and its widespread publicity helped to close most duck-boat-related cruise businesses nationwide. The boats, once designated DUKW, were originally designed as World War II amphibious craft. After the war, cruise operators adapted them for pleasure cruising in several parts of the country.