Several major publications are reporting that court records indicate that the deadly duck boats were designed decades ago by a businessman who had no engineering experience.
The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today are among those reporting that the designer and entrepreneur, Robert F. McDowell, had completed only two years of college and “had no background, training or certification in mechanics when he came up with the design for ‘stretch’ duck boats.” USA Today, “Court Records show duck boat in Missouri disaster was designed by entrepreneur with no engineering training,” by Matt Pearce, July 24, 2018.
The discovery came upon an examination of a lawsuit filed over a roadway disaster in Seattle involving a similar duck boat in 2015.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the duck boat to sink on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, last week. It was carrying 31 people on a sightseeing tour, killing 17 and injuring 14 more people. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) called the duck boats a “sinking coffin” and indicated she intends to draft federal legislation proposing stronger safety standards.
Duck boats were originally created during World War II to transport troops and cargo on land and sea. After the war ended, they reportedly became surplus items and were repurposed as pleasure crafts by tour companies across the country. Since then, they have been involved in multiple deadly accidents on the water and on roads, being amphibious vehicles.
USA Today reported that Ride the Ducks Branson vehicles were modified including lengthening the hull and reassembling the craft, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. These refurbished duck boats allegedly were designed and developed by McDowell who was “self-educated by going to auto parts stores and talking to different people,” according to the court filing. The court filing goes on to say that engineers were not consulted. McDowell’s father in the 1970s owned the duck boat company in Branson that was then called Ozark Scenic Tours. He sold the company in 2001-02.
Robert A. Clifford, founder and senior partner at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago and a maritime lawyer who has handled numerous cases involving boat tragedies, has been outspoken on the lack of safety and guidelines for these amphibious vessels. Recently, he was quoted in USA Today, ABC News and WGN Radio as well the National Law Journal where he was quoted by reporter Amanda Bronstad saying,
“Lawsuits will inevitably come from this tragic incident. …It is clear that the owners and operators of the boat were negligent in the decision to take the boat out in the waters, despite clear weather warnings that it was unsafe that day. In addition, surviving witnesses have stated that they were told it was unnecessary to wear life jackets. I view this as similar to wearing seat belts in a car – you are better off with having them on with the likelihood greater that they may help you. Without them, you have less of a chance of survival.”
Clifford believes the U.S. Coast Guard should place a 20 knot forecast and/or observed wind limit and no in-thunderstorm operations restriction on all duck boat in-water operations when paying passengers are on board. Clifford also believes that duck boat operators, in order to adhere to the above restrictions, should be required to check all available National Weather Service forecasts and radar sources for the area of operation within 30 minutes of embarking on in-water operations with paying passengers on board.