Missouri Prosecutor Files Criminal Charges In Branson Duck Boat Case

Ten months after a federal judge dismissed federal charges against the operators of a duck boat business for a 2018 sinking on Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri in which 17 people died (WJ, Sept. 13, 2020), a Missouri prosecutor has filed criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter against three men.

Multiple federal criminal charges had been filed under maritime law, but U.S. Judge David Rush concluded on September 3, 2020, that because Table Rock Lake is not a “navigable waterway” under federal admiralty law, his court did not have jurisdiction.

The dismissal of the case left open the possibility of charges being filed in state court. That’s what happened July 19 when Matt Selby, Stone County prosecutor, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmidt announced the filing of 63 charges against three men — Kenneth Scott McKee, Charles Baltzell and Curtis Lanham — in relation to the sinking.

The statement alleges that McKee, the captain of  the amphibious vessel Stretch Duck 7, failed to exercise his duties as a licensed captain by entering the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning and failed to follow policies and training by not having passengers don flotation devices as the boat took on water. It also claims that Baltzell, operations supervisor of Ride the Ducks Branson, and Lanham, general manager, failed to communicate weather conditions and cease operations during the severe thunderstorm warning.

Each of the three was charged with 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter. In addition, McKee was charged with several additional counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its own report on the incident in April 2020, laying partial blame on the Coast Guard for failing to implement earlier NTSB safety recommendations following a 1999 duck boat accident that killed 13 people.

The boats, once designated DUKW, were originally designed as World War II amphibious craft. According to military.wikia, the design DUKW was not an official military designation, but reflected model terminology used by General Motors, one of the two manufacturers that built them. “D” indicated a vehicle designed in 1942, “U” meant “utility,” “K” indicated driven front wheels and “W” indicated two powered rear axles. After the war, entrepreneurs bought them as surplus and adapted them for pleasure cruising in several parts of the country.

The boat’s operator at the time of the incident, 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 cruise businesses nationwide.