Dead duck boat rider threw mate life jacket, lawyer claims

The pilot of this tug boat, photographed minutes after running over a duck boat last year, was blamed by the NTSB for distracted driving that led to two deaths.
RIKARD LARMA/METRO

The deaths of Hungarian exchange students Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, who drowned in a 2010 duck boat crash on the Delaware River, were due to the failure of maritime companies to properly enforce policies among their employees, attorneys for the claimants argued in federal court today.

“They can see this barge coming at them and realize there’s no escape,” lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi said of the Ride the Ducks boat employees in the moments before the crash. “[Deckhand] Kyle Burkhardt jumps into the water, saving his own life. Only one person cares about someone other than themselves.”

Mongeluzzi gestured to a video showing a tugboat owned by K-Sea Operating Partnership pushing a 250-foot sludge barge into and over the tourism boat. Burkhardt launches himself over the hood and a person can be seen tossing him a flotation device from the sinking ship’s deck. “Right there is 16-year-old Dora,” he said. “She throws a life preserver to Burkhardt, saving his life. She gives up her life to save his.”

Case participants in the sightseeing accident are in court today to debate the financial liability of operators of both Ride the Ducks International and K-Sea. Attorneys for the families argue that an 1800s maritime law limiting the operators’ financial liability to the cost of their vessels does not apply because both companies were long aware of procedural problems and oversights that contributed to the crash, including widespread employee cell phone use and failure to follow emergency procedures on both vessels.

They also argue that the design of the duck boat contributed to the deaths, including air horns that stopped working when the ships were powered off and canopies they say trapped victims underwater.

Attorneys for K-Sea and Ride the Ducks argued that the employees whose negligence contributed to the crash were not following company policies and that management had no way to predict their behavior.


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