The jury determined that Ride The Ducks International bore 67 to 70 percent of the responsibility for the 2015 crash and Ride The Ducks of Seattle was 30 to 33 percent at fault in the crash that killed five people and injured more than 60 others.
A King County jury on Thursday awarded about $123 million to the victims and their families in the 2015 Ride the Ducks crash that killed five people and injured more than 60 others.
The jury determined after a four-month civil trial that Ride the Ducks International — the Branson, Missouri-based manufacturer of the Duck amphibious vehicle — bore 67 to 70 percent of the responsibility for the crash. The jury also found that Ride the Ducks of Seattle, which operated the tour vehicle, was 30 to 33 percent at fault.
Awards to each of the 40 plaintiffs will range from $40,000 to $25 million.
The Superior Court jury determined that two others named in the suit, the city of Seattle and the state of Washington, were not at fault in the crash, which happened when the World War II-era duck vehicle crossed the centerline of Seattle’s Aurora Bridge and plowed into a charter bus full of international students on Sept. 24, 2015.
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The amount awarded for economic and noneconomic damages was less than the $300 million requested by the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, Karen Koehler, in her closing argument last month.
But Koehler said she was pleased with the jurors’ decision and said they did exactly what they were asked to do.
She said the jurors listened to the plaintiffs’ stories and believed them. They recognized, Koehler added, that even the victims who suffered less severe physical injuries “were not OK.”
“This jury was always on top of this case and we couldn’t have asked any more of them,” she said following the verdict.
Koehler said she hopes the verdict will lead to Ducks vehicles being taken off the road.
In an emailed statement, Ride the Ducks of Seattle stressed the changes the company has made in its operations since the deadly crash.
“Since the accident, we’ve made significant structural changes to the critical parts of our vehicles and instituted a program of regular testing, done in addition to inspections conducted by the state and United States Coast Guard. We’ve done a top-to-bottom review of our operations and have unilaterally made a series of changes including removing the Aurora Bridge from our route.”
Steve Puz, an attorney for the state, said that while he was pleased with the jurors’ decision, there is no such thing as a happy conclusion in a case with so many injured and dead.
Jurors, who had been deliberating since Jan. 28, declined to be interviewed as they left the courtroom.
The 2016 lawsuit, filed on behalf of 40 people who were injured or killed in the crash, claimed that the former owner of Ride the Ducks International scavenged parts from junkyards and improvised flawed fixes for the Duck vehicles, though he was not a mechanic or an engineer.
Ride the Ducks of Seattle failed to inspect and maintain the amphibious vehicle properly, the suit claimed. In particular, the plaintiffs argued, the company ignored a 2013 service bulletin from the manufacturer warning of a flaw in the axle and recommending a fix.
Attorney Jack Snyder of Ride the Ducks International (RTDI) claimed during the trial that the company had identified the problem before the crash, discovered a fix, made the needed alterations to the vehicles it owned and issued an alert to other Duck-vehicle operators.
All the other Ducks licensees and franchisees, except for Seattle, made the fix, he said.
Ride the Ducks of Seattle claimed that the manufacturer peppered it with service bulletins that did not differentiate between trivial recommendations and urgent safety warnings.
In addition, a welding expert called to the stand by Ride the Ducks of Seattle testified that even if the Seattle company had added a collar of metal around the weak axle, as recommended by RTDI, it would not have prevented the axle failure.
Washington state and the city of Seattle were also accused of bearing some responsibility for the crash: The suit claimed both were aware the Aurora Bridge was unsafe but neither had installed median barriers.
Attorneys for the city and state denied responsibility, saying it was caused not by a defect in the roadway but by the actions, or inactions, of the two Ducks companies. Nevertheless, both the city and state last year settled with the families of 12 crash victims.
The crash killed five North Seattle College international students who were on a chartered bus headed to downtown Seattle for orientation: Claudia Derschmidt, 49, of Austria; Privando Putradanto, 18, of Indonesia; Runjie Song, 17, of China; Mami Sato, 36, of Japan; and HaRam Kim, 20, of South Korea.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board determined the collision occurred after the front axle broke off the Ducks vehicle due to improper manufacturing by Ride the Ducks International and improper maintenance by Ride the Ducks of Seattle.
Last year, the manufacturer and the Seattle company settled for $8.25 million a suit that was filed on behalf of four plaintiffs, including the family of one passenger who was killed.
Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates commercial charter buses and tourist vehicles statewide, suspended the local company from operating its 20 tourist vehicles after the crash. Ducks Seattle later admitted to 159 critical safety violations and agreed to pay $222,000 in penalties to settle the state complaint before resuming operations.
The Missouri-based Ducks company also agreed to pay up to $1 million in civil fines for violating federal safety regulations. RTDI entered into the federal consent order after admitting it failed to notify federal transportation regulators and issue a required recall of its vehicles after discovering the defective front axles.
The current trial featured 11 lawyers, testimony from more than two dozen experts and nearly 90 witnesses, including injured victims and relatives of the dead. There were almost 100 pages of jury instructions and verdict forms.
In her closing, Koehler listed the names of each of her 40 clients, outlined their injuries and spoke of what was taken from them. She asked jurors to award each victim $3 million or more.
Attorneys for the two Ducks companies emphasized in their closings the need for jurors to be reasonable and fair in awarding damages. “This, more than anything, is about common sense,” Snyder said.
Civil trials differ from criminal trials in that the burden of proof is not as high. In order to convict, juries in criminal trials must unanimously agree that the evidence of guilt against the suspect is “beyond reasonable doubt.” In a civil trial in Washington, at least 10 jurors must find that a “preponderance of evidence” supports the plaintiff’s claims.
Also in Washington, jurors are asked to determine each respondent’s share of responsibility as a percentage due to the state’s laws on joint and several liability, which seek to hold defendants jointly responsible for liability and compensation, but may also result in defendants paying more than their court-assigned percentage of the damages.
Most of the damages, if not all, will be paid by the insurance companies that underwrite the various companies and entities involved.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect date for the Ride the Ducks crash.