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Jurors to begin deliberations in civil trial over Ride the Ducks crash in Seattle

A “Ride the Ducks” tourist vehicle, center, is loaded onto a flatbed tow truck in the late evening Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, after it was involved in a fatal crash with the charter passenger bus, left, and other vehicles in Seattle. The crask on Aurora Bridge killed five people and injured more than 60. After four months of testimony and closing arguments Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, and Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in a civil trial in Seattle, jurors will deliberate Monday, Feb. 4, on whether Ride the Ducks International carries most of the blame for the crash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Christine Clarridge Seattle Times

SEATTLE – After four months of testimony from dozens of victims, mechanics and civil engineers, jurors in the civil trial in the deadly 2015 Ride the Ducks crash are expected to begin their deliberations Monday.

In closing arguments Thursday and Friday in King County Superior Court, attorneys for the victims and three of the defendants agreed on one thing: Ride the Ducks International carries most of the blame for the Aurora Bridge crash that killed five people and injured more than 60.

The Branson, Mo.-based Ride the Ducks International, makers of the amphibious, World War II-style tourist vehicles, knew of a potentially catastrophic vulnerability in the wheel’s axle housing and did nothing to alert safety agencies or warn customers, according to attorneys for the victims as well as the city of Seattle, state and the Ride the Ducks of Seattle company. Ride the Ducks of Seattle operated the vehicle involved in the crash and is among the four defendants.

“If only on Jan. 31, 2005, Duck 6 had never left that shop with a 1945 cracked axle and a tab fix on it that nobody knew what the heck it was,” said plantiffs’ attorney Karen Koehler, referring to the date the Seattle Ducks company took delivery of the tour vehicle from Ride the Ducks International. “It is incomprehensible.”

Koehler told jurors she believes Ride the Ducks International, or RTDI, bears 50 percent of the responsibility for manufacturing the flawed vehicle, Ride the Ducks of Seattle bears 30 percent responsibility for failing to heed a service bulletin about the vehicles’ axle housing and that the city and state each bear 10 percent responsibility for neglecting to erect traffic barriers on the Aurora Bridge.

She is seeking more than $300 million on behalf of more than 40 victims and family members.

In his closing argument Friday, RTDI attorney Jack Snyder said the company came up with a fix for the axle defect, alerted licensees and customers to make the repair and only Seattle did not follow the service bulletin.

RTDI is the sole defendant, he said, “that did anything to prevent this tragedy.”

He talked then about compensation and explained to jurors that it’s intended to make victims whole, not to punish or validate.

He also questioned whether it was fair and reasonable to award damages with a baseline of $3 million per claim and asked why the plaintiffs’ attorneys included the cost of a “life care plan” for every victim.

One victim who walked off the bridge, not visibly injured, and then went to the Woodland Park Zoo after the accident probably doesn’t need a life care plan, he said. A fair compensation for some of the injured might be more in the $25,000 to $100,000 range, he said.

“This, more than anything, is about common sense,” he said.

Ride the Ducks of Seattle claimed during the trial that Ride the Ducks International peppered them with service bulletins containing trivial information, such as detailing an attractive way to tie side curtains.

“It’s one thing to get a service bulletin,” Ride the Ducks of Seattle attorney Pat Buchanan told jurors during her opening statement in October. “It’s another to get 20 of them in a day or a month.”

Attorneys for the state Department of Transportation have said during the trial that the state was not to blame because neither the lack of median barriers or wider lanes had “anything to do with this crash.” Likewise, the Seattle Department of Transportation denied culpability in the crash, calling it “a terrible, terrible accident” in earlier testimony.

Seattle’s largest critical mass incident happened Sept. 24, 2015, when the axle broke on a Seattle Ducks’ vehicle, causing it to careen over the center line and crash into a chartered bus carrying international students from North Seattle College.

Killed were 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.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board later found that the crash was caused by mechanical failure, improper maintenance and loopholes in federal oversight.

After the 2015 crash, the state Utilities and Transportation Committee, which regulates commercial charter buses and tourist vehicles statewide, suspended the local company from operating its 20 tourist vehicles. Ducks Seattle later admitted to 159 critical safety violations and agreed to pay $222,000 in penalties to settle the state complaint.

Two years ago, the Missouri-based Ducks company 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.

Though the state and city have denied responsibility for the crash, both last year settled with the families of 12 victims. In November, Ride the Ducks International and Ride the Ducks of Seattle settled the lawsuit for $8.25 million with four plaintiffs, including the family of one passenger who was killed.

The suit alleges that both Seattle and Washington knew that the Aurora Bridge was unsafe but failed to erect any kind of median barrier.

Questions have been raised about the safety of the amphibious Duck vehicles after other fatal accidents have occurred.

After 13 people were killed when a Duck boat sank in Hot Springs, Ark., in May 1999, the NTSB called for sweeping changes to the way such tourist boats operate and are regulated. This past July, a Duck boat was swamped when a sudden storm swept across Table Rock Lake in Branson. Of the 31 people on board, 17 drowned.