Trial in wrongful death 'Ride the Ducks' case scheduled to begin next week

By Jon Campisi | May 4, 2012

Trial is scheduled to begin next week in the wrongful death case arising out of the deadly duck boat accident that occurred in the waters of the Delaware River back in July 2010.

The collision, which occurred after a barge struck the amphibious tourist vessel in the river’s navigational channel on the Philadelphia side, resulted in the deaths of a teenager and a young adult visiting from Eastern Europe.

The parents of the visiting Hungarian students who drowned, 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem, are expected to be in court for opening arguments, according to a statement by plaintiff’s firm Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky.

The high-power Philadelphia law firm is representing the plaintiffs alongside lawyers from Ronai and Ronai.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys filed suit on behalf of the deceased students’ parents on Aug. 10, 2010 at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court.

Defense attorneys removed the case to federal court the following month because of jurisdictional issues.

The complaint alleges that the defendants, Ride The Ducks of Philadelphia LLC, which operates the amphibious tourist vehicles, and K-Sea Transportation Partners, which was in charge of the tugboat that was pushing the empty sludge barge that struck the duck boat on that fateful day, were equally negligent and should share the responsibility in the deaths of the two young people.

A third defendant named in the lawsuit is Ride the Ducks International LLC, a Georgia-based company and subsidiary of Herschend Family Entertainment, which owned, maintained and operated the 33-foot amphibious tour boat, which can operate on land and in water.

Ride the Ducks, the complaint states, has been operational in Philadelphia since 2003. It is the nation’s largest amphibious tour operator and amphibious vehicle maker.

According to a statement from Saltz Mongeluzzi, two of the defendants are claiming that under an “archaic” 1851 maritime limitation of liability law, their total liability should be capped at the value of the vessels involved in the accident.

K-Sea estimates the value of the tugboat at $1.65 million while Ride the Ducks asserts $150,000 in total liability based on the value of the salvaged duck boat.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are prepared to argue at trial that the accident could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the irresponsible actions of tugboat First Mate Matt Devlin, who was using his cell phone at the time the barge struck the tourist vessel, according to Saltz Mongeluzzi’s statement.

“The evidence to be presented at trial will conclusively establish that this accident was not a freak unpredictable occurrence, but occurred because of multiple egregious failures of K-Sea and Ride the Ducks to properly train their employees and to have adequate policies and procedures in place,” the statement reads.

Devlin, of Catskill, N.Y., pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in August 2011 and was sentenced that November to one year and one day in federal prison, according to news reports.

At his sentencing, local media reported at the time, Devlin said he wished he could “take it all back,” and admitted to having been distracted at the time of the crash by a phone call he had received concerning his 5-year-old son who went eight minutes without oxygen during a routine eye surgery.

Devlin was on his cell phone trying to ascertain his son’s condition at the time the barge collided with the duck boat.

Saltz Mongeluzzi’s statement said that evidence at trial would establish that “every person on the tugboat routinely and consistently violated K-Sea’s cell phone policies and that management knew of such violations and did nothing to deter them.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys will also attempt to show that Ride the Ducks employed an “incompetent” mechanic who, during his first time performing a post-trip inspection alone, which occurred the night before the accident, left the radiator cap off of the duck boat’s engine, a failure that led to engine overheating, which, in turn, caused the vehicle to be stranded in the Delaware River at the time it was struck by the sludge barge.

The duck boat’s captain, Gary Fox, believed there was a fire onboard and shut down the vessel in the middle of the river’s shipping channel.

The complaint faults Fox for dropping anchor in the middle of a busy commercial shipping channel, and also blames him for not instructing the passengers aboard the vessel to strap on their floatation devices earlier.

While Fox is faulted for not contacting the U.S. Coast Guard on the duck boat’s emergency channel, the captain did try to alert other vessels in the area of the duck boat’s predicament; Devlin, the tugboat’s first mate, hadn’t heard the distress call because he was on his cell phone with the tugboat’s radio turned down at the time.

“Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem died a horrific agonizing death by drowning, alone in a foreign country without their parents in the murky dark waters of the river after fighting for and losing their lives,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit contains counts of negligence, strict product liability, violation of general maritime law, violation of inland navigation rules, outrageous conduct, and wrongful death.

The suit also contains a negligence count against the City of Philadelphia.

The plaintiffs seek compensatory damages in excess of $50,000 as well as punitive damages and delay damages.

The trial, which will take place before U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill, is expected to last about four weeks. The first day of trial will be May 7.

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