Jurors in the Ride the Ducks trial took a field trip Tuesday to a warehouse on West Marginal Way in Seattle where they silently viewed the wreckage of “Duck No. 6” and the charter bus it crashed into more than three years ago.
Both vehicles showed the effects of the deadly crash on the Aurora Bridge. The bow of the Duck vehicle was marred and crushed, its front wheels missing. But it was the side of the Bellair charter bus — where the Duck vehicle sliced through metal panels and ripped them away — that seemed to capture the attention of the 15 jurors and alternate jurors.
Some got down near the floor to gaze up into the mangled metal and the obliterated seats where the North Seattle College students who were killed, or those who suffered the most devastating injuries, had been sitting. Others circled the vehicle a few times to take in the totality of the destruction.
Within 10 minutes the jurors were back on their chartered blue bus and headed back to the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, where testimony resumed.
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Five people were killed and more than 60 were injured when an axle broke on the Ride the Ducks vehicle, causing the amphibious, World War II-vehicle to cross the centerline and hit the bus on Sept. 24, 2015.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 42 people who were injured or killed in the crash, alleges that Ride the Ducks Seattle, Ride the Ducks International, the City of Seattle and the State of Washington all bear some responsibility for the crash.
According to the suit, the former owner of Ride the Ducks International jury-rigged fixes for the sightseeing vehicles, scavenging parts from junkyards and old vehicles, though he was not a mechanic or an engineer.
Ride the Ducks Seattle, a licensee of the Branson, Missouri-based Ride the Ducks International, failed to heed a critical 2013 service bulletin that advised owners of the vehicles to add a metal collar around a potential weak point in the axles where fractures had been found, plaintiffs allege in the suit.
In addition, the suit claims that the state Department of Transportation and the Seattle Department of Transportation both knew a median between the north and southbound lanes of the Aurora Bridge was needed to improve safety but failed to act on that knowledge.
After the crash, the state Utilities and Transportation Committee, which regulates commercial charter buses and tourist vehicles statewide, determined that Ride the Ducks of Seattle had committed 159 critical safety violations and 304 record-keeping violations. Ride the Ducks Seattle agreed to pay $222,000 in penalties to settle the state complaint.
Earlier this year, Seattle agreed to pay more than $2 million to the families of 12 victims, although the city had argued that it should not be held liable in the suit because the state, and not the city, bore responsibility for bridge safety. The state also settled with those same 12 families.
Once jurors returned to the courtroom Tuesday, they heard from one of the injured plaintiffs.
Joann Gerke and her wife, Rhonda Cooley, of Wisconsin, had been in Seattle on a bucket-list trip with a friend when they boarded the Duck. When the vehicle reached the Aurora Bridge, Gerke said she and other passengers were instructed to look to the right for “what was supposed to be an awesome view.”
Gerke then heard a crack and things began to move in slow motion, she said. Shattered glass appeared to be moving slowly toward her as she was ejected from the Duck; she said she felt “as if I were in a tunnel.”
When Gerke landed on the pavement she had four fractured vertebra and numerous torn muscles. The former physical-education teacher said that because of the crash she is no longer able to sit or drive comfortably, had to retire 10 years earlier than planned and saw her marriage flounder as she and her wife struggled to recover physically and emotionally.
She was always active and a “doer,” Gerke said, but she now fears having to be on some form of pain medication for the rest of her life.
Under cross-examination, Gerke was asked by lawyers for the defendants whether she and her wife, who had worked for Fed-Ex, were truly forced to leave their jobs because of their physical injuries. One attorney asked Gerke whether she knew her wife had been offered “light duty” in lieu of leaving. She said she did not know until she learned of it during the trial.
Gerke was also asked whether she and her wife did any of the electrical work needed to update the home they’d bought when they moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to a rural area. She said they did none of the work themselves.
The trial, which began last month, is expected to last five to six months.