Duck boat wrongful death trial ends abruptly after $17 million settlement reached

By Jon Campisi | May 10, 2012

The parties involved in the federal duck boat wrongful death case have agreed to a $15 million settlement to be shared by the families of the two visiting Hungarians killed after their tourist vessel was capsized in the Delaware River in Philadelphia two years ago.

The settlement, announced on Wednesday, came on what was supposed to be the third day in the non-jury trial at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The money will be split between the two families of those killed in the accident. An additional $2 million will be set aside for the survivors of the crash.

It was not immediately clear what share of the settlement each defendant would pay.

On Tuesday, the judge overseeing the case, Thomas O’Neill, ordered both sides into settlement talks before fellow U.S. District Judge John R. Padova.

O’Neill had said there would be no disruption while the parties tried to reach an agreement in mid-trial since there was no jury deciding the case.

Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, lost their lives on July 7, 2010 after the Ride the Ducks amphibious tourist craft was struck by an empty sludge barge in the middle of the river’s commercial shipping channel on the Philadelphia side of the waterway that separates Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The only person to face criminal charges in the case was Matt Devlin, the first mate on the tugboat that was pushing the barge.

Devlin is currently serving a yearlong federal prison sentence for the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.

Investigators determined that Devlin was distracted by distressing news involving his young son, who had lost oxygen for a period of time while undergoing routine surgery.

Devlin was using his cell phone to try and ascertain his son’s condition at the time the barge struck the duck boat, which has been stranded in the waterway due to mechanical failures.

Video played by the plaintiff’s attorneys during the first day of trial Monday showed the barge striking and overturning the amphibious vessel.

Lead plaintiff’s attorney, Robert Mongeluzzi, of the high-power Philadelphia firm Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, had said for the first time in public during opening arguments Monday that Schwendtner threw her life preserver overboard to Kyle Burkhardt, the 18-year-old trainee and first mate on the duck boat during that fateful day.

Schwendtner’s actions likely saved Burkhardt’s life, Mongeluzzi had said in court.

The defendants in the case were K-Sea Transportation Partners, the New Jersey-based company that operates the tugboat, and Ride the Ducks, which owns and maintains the fleet of duck boat vehicles, which can operate on land and in water.

The company has been offering tours in Philadelphia since 2003.

Mongeluzzi had blamed the two deaths on both defendants’ negligence, especially laying blame at K-Sea’s policy regarding cell phone use by employees.

In a statement released following the settlement agreement, Mongeluzzi said the families of those slain were “deeply grateful to the Court for recognizing that their children were important and did not deserve to die in vain.

“While their suffering continues, they have renewed hope in the American justice system and that stricter regulations on cell phone use and tourist-boat operating procedures might avert similar catastrophes on and off the water,” Mongeluzzi continued.

Mongeluzzi’s co-counsel, Andrew Duffy, said in his own statement that the case illustrated “what happens when safety rules and regulations are not enforced.”

The settlement is not only the appropriate remedy for the families involved, Duffy said, but is also “totally consistent with the findings and recommendation following the extensive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.”

The revelation that Devlin, the tugboat’s first mate, was using his cell phone below deck at the time of the crash came about through the investigation by the NTSB.

Mongeluzzi’s law firm tried the case along side attorneys with New York-based Ronai & Ronai.

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