A Seattle jury has awarded $123 million to nearly 40 victims of a duck boat accident in 2015 that killed five people.
The award, handed up Thursday, follows a marathon trial that began Oct. 16 and featured dozens of attorneys, experts and interpreters. Lead trial counsel for the plaintiffs, Karen Koehler, said the Seattle case was the longest personal injury case ever tried in the state of Washington.
“I hope it will inspire other people to bring these lawsuits against, at least, this company that put this product on the marketplace, so all the vehicles on the roads are no longer on the roads,” said Koehler, of Seattle’s Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore. Koehler tried the case almost exclusively with her associate, Andrew Ackley, she said.
On Sept. 24, 2015, a Ride the Ducks Seattle vehicle was crossing the Aurora Bridge when it slammed into a charter bus of primarily international students at North Seattle College. The plaintiffs had alleged that the accident occurred when the duck boat’s axle broke, and that the city and state defendants had failed to erect a barrier on the Aurora Bridge.
The jury, which began deliberating Jan. 28, found the duck boat operator was negligent for the accident and that the manufacturer had sold a defective and unsafe product.
Assisting the plaintiffs’ team was Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, which represented two sons of Claudia Derschmidt, one of the victims who died. The jury awarded them more than $20 million.
“We are gratified that this hard-working jury so clearly saw the need to bring a just resolution to the tragedy suffered by our clients,” wrote Baum Hedlund partner Ron Goldman in an email. “We are hopeful that this verdict will assist these extraordinary young men to temper their grief with knowledge that their relationship with their mother is so well recognized.”
The jury awarded individual verdicts that ranged from $550,000 to nearly $26 million.
The jury found that manufacturer Ride the Ducks International was 70 percent liable for the injuries on the duck boat and that Ride the Ducks Seattle, the local operator, was 30 percent liable. For those on the chartered bus or other vehicles, who were injured, the jury assessed 33 percent liability to Ride the Ducks of Seattle and 67 percent to Ride the Ducks International.
Both had blamed one another for the accident.
Jurors found no liability against the city of Seattle or the state of Washington, both of which were defendants in the case.
Philadelphia attorney John Snyder, a partner at Rawle & Henderson, who represented Ride the Ducks International, did not respond to a request for comment. He told jurors that his client, which had issued a service bulletin regarding the axles, was “the only party who did anything to prevent this accident,” according to testimony of the trial broadcast by Courtroom View Network.
A Ride the Ducks Seattle spokesman said the company had made “significant structural changes to the critical parts of our vehicles” and now does regular testing and inspections. It also removed the Aurora Bridge from its route.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think of those lives that were forever changed that day,” wrote Ride the Ducks Seattle spokesman Mark Firmani. “We’ve been working hard to regain the trust of those we serve and will continue to do so in the future.”
Patricia Buchanan, of Seattle’s Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch, who represented Ride the Ducks Seattle, said in a separate statement that she was pleased with the verdict.
“I know first-hand that the lives forever changed that tragic day have been and will continue to be in the thoughts of everyone at Ride the Ducks of Seattle,” she wrote. “On their behalf, I extend sincere acknowledgement to plaintiffs for their pain, sorrow and loss and the fact nothing can truly erase what they have suffered. With the utmost respect, I extend appreciation to the jury for their time, attention and service. We are pleased with the jury’s verdict and are grateful for the opportunity for closure it brings.”
During her opening statement, Koehler, nicknamed on her firm’s website as “The Velvet Hammer,” personified the duck boat captain, donning a hat, and, during closings, she quoted from Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
“If only we could turn back time,” Koehler said, according to coverage of the trial by Courtroom View Network. “An accident happens for no reason. There are so many reasons why this tragedy happened.”
In an interview, Koehler attributed much of the verdict, which was all compensatory damages, to a “consistent barrage of testimony against the duck companies” and her insistence that the plaintiffs go to trial together. She said she fought attempts to bifurcate, or have a trial with a few sample cases.
“That made all the difference,” she said. “We never had a liability and damage phase. It was mixed throughout the entire trial.”
She had asked the jury to award a total of $300 million, but $123 million was the amount offered in a failed mediation of the case, she said. She brushed off the jury’s finding of no liability against the city and state defendants, stating that they were “never critical to our case because the duck companies were heavily insured.”
She said the hardest part of the trial was King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer’s strict timeline.
“The judge literally wanted us to come in on time and, for the plaintiffs’ side, since putting on so much of the case, she didn’t want even one second between witnesses,” she said. “They were flying in from around the world. We arranged interpreters for the court, and there were so many witnesses. Also, I did this trial paperless. That helped, but it was a feat to get on a production like this as smoothly as we did with no down time.”
Coincidentally, Koehler said, she was in Branson, Missouri, doing depositions of Ride the Ducks International officials about one week before a duck boat drowned on July 19, killing 17 people.
Bob Mongeluzzi at Philadelphia’s Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, who represents victims of the Missouri accident, praised the Seattle verdict.
“We have been calling for duck boats to be banned for almost a decade,” he said. “They have no place on our roads, or in the water, as we’ve seen proven time and time again. They are death traps.”