The families of two Hungarian tourists killed when the duck boat they were on in the Delaware River was run over by a barge will split a $15 million settlement from the operators of both boats, according to attorneys in the case.
The remaining 18 passengers who were on the boat will split a $2 million settlement from the defendants, the attorneys added.
The parties are not disclosing how much each of the defendants will be responsible for regarding the $17 million payout. Ride the Ducks, its parent company, Herschend Entertainment, and K-Sea Transportation Partners, the owner-operator of the tugboat Caribbean Sea, agreed to the terms of the settlement, the plaintiffs lawyers said.
After hearing testimony in the bench trial Monday and the first half of Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas O’Neill Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania suggested that the parties discuss a settlement, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky in Philadelphia.
The parties were in settlement discussions before U.S. District Judge John R. Padova until mid-afternoon Wednesday. As of just after 3 p.m., a settlement had not been reached, but the parties went before the judge about an hour later to announce an agreement.
The company that owned the duck boat and the company that owned the tugboat pushing the barge that crushed it in the Delaware River both argued that the Limitation of Liability Act, passed by Congress in 1851, caps their total liability at $1.7 million.
According to that act, the owners of vessels are not liable for any loss over the value of the ship. Ride the Ducks International claimed the duck boat is worth $150,000, according to court papers. K-Sea Transportation valued the tugboat at $1.65 million, according to court papers.
Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, were killed in the July 7, 2010, accident and 18 other passengers were left stranded in the Delaware River.
Mongeluzzi said after the verdict that the settlement represents nearly 10 times the amount the defendants’ vessels were worth. He said there was significant discovery and documents in what he called a “long, drawn-out campaign.”
“I hope that the publicity of this will change the transportation industry regarding being on your phone while operating a vessel or vehicle,” Mongeluzzi said.
The operator of the tugboat, who has since pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, said he had learned shortly before his accident that his son was ill and he was on his cellphone dealing with the family emergency, according to media reports. Before settlement discussions began, the plaintiffs put on testimony to support their assertion that the accident was preventable and resulted from a series of negligent acts in which safety practices were routinely ignored by critical operating personnel.
Mongeluzzi said O’Neill did a great job in resolving a case with 20 plaintiffs and multiple defendants in less than two years and Padova was instrumental in getting it settled in less than 24 hours.
Andrew Duffy, also of Saltz Mongeluzzi, said the parties reached a full global settlement of all issues. He said there was no amount of money that would bring back Schwendtner and Prem. The families only wanted to find out what happened, find out who was responsible and ensure it never happened again, Duffy said.
The news of the case and ensuing investigations seem to have had an impact. A duck boat stalled out on the Delaware River just days before the settlement and a rescue boat was there in four minutes, Duffy said. Had that been available on July 7, 2010, the stalled boat would have been rescued before the barge had a chance to run it over, he said.
New York-based Ronai & Ronai also served as plaintiffs counsel.
John Snyder of Rawle & Henderson in Philadelphia represented Ride the Ducks and Thomas Canevari of Freehill Hogan & Mahar in New York represented K-Sea Transportation. Neither of the defense attorneys were immediately available for comment.