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Companies use 1851 law to deny liability in duck boat tragedy that killed 17

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana woman who lost nine family members in the sinking of a duck boat in Missouri over the summer expressed outrage at a court filing Monday by two companies facing multiple lawsuits in the tragedy.           

The companies, Branson Duck Vehicles and Ripley Entertainment, cited an 1851 maritime law to limit or eliminate liability for the tragedy that killed 17 people in July, according to Tia Coleman's lawyers.

» 'I thought I was dead': Branson duck boat passenger who lost 9 family members shares story       

In a filing in federal court in Missouri, the defendants denied negligence in the sinking of the boat. But the filing said that if a court does find negligence, their liability is zero. That's because "the Vessel was a total loss and has no current value. No freight was pending on the Vessel."          

Coleman and her lawyers called the legal maneuver "callous and calculated."

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"Ripley’s legal claim that my husband and children are worthless is incredibly hurtful and insensitive," Coleman said in a statement. "Anyone who cares about people or has any human decency should boycott Ripley and their attractions."          

One of the lawyers, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, said, "Ripley’s inhuman legal ploy will sink as fast as their death trap duck boat did. We will legally and factually demolish this frivolous claim."

» Georgia relatives share photo of 9 killed in duck boat accident   

A spokeswoman for Ripley's could not be immediately reached for comment but told the Associated Press in a statement that the filing is "common in claims related to maritime incidents."           

She said the goal is to give the parties time for mediation.

"We have reached out to those most impacted by the accident and offered to mediate their claims now," the statement said. "Mediation often leads to faster resolution and allows those affected to avoid a lengthy process of litigation, and most importantly, begin the healing process."          

In July, the Springfield News-Leader — which like the Indianapolis Star, is a member of the USA Today Network — looked at the 1851 law, the Shipowner's Limitation of Liability Act, which limits damages to the salvaged value of the sunken vessel.          

"The law was intended to bolster a fledgling maritime shipping industry," maritime lawyer Daniel Rose told the newspaper. "Congress was trying to encourage people to buy vessels and improve the maritime system. This was 1850, there was no insurance for maritime vessels. The incentive was that if you go ahead and buy a vessel, we're going to protect you if anything goes wrong.          

"Fast-forward two centuries, it’s still on the books. It comes up in every one of these major high-profile disasters."

Mongeluzzi said there have been no settlement offers. He is seeking $100 million in the wrongful death lawsuit involving two of the deceased passengers, including one member of the Coleman family.

» A family of 9 was on Branson duck boat when it sank. All survived       

The lawsuit alleged Ripley "recklessly risked the lives of its passengers for purely financial reasons."

Ripley Entertainment runs Ride the Ducks. Branson Duck Vehicles owned the boat.

Sixteen of 29 passengers died July 19 when a duck boat sank during stormy weather in Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri. A crew member also died.          

Nine members of the Coleman family were killed: Tia's husband, Glenn Coleman, 40; daughter Arya Coleman,1; and sons Evan Coleman, 7, and Reece Coleman, 9.          

At least 10 other lawsuits have been filed on behalf of other victims, including the five other Coleman family members: Horace Coleman, 70; his wife, Belinda, 69; his brother Irvin, 76; his daughter, Angela; and Angela's son, Maxwell, 2.          

Ripley said in its court filing  the boat was "in all respects seaworthy and properly manned." The boat, it said was "in good order and condition and suitable for their intended operation." 

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