Jury reaches verdict in Ride the Ducks civil trial

SEATTLE — Feb. 7 Update: 

Jurors awarded $123 million dollars to the plaintiffs in the Ride the Ducks crash.

The jury split the blame for the crash between Ride the Ducks Seattle and Ride the Ducks International, the city and the state were not found to share in the responsibility.

For passengers on the duck vehicle, jurors found Ride the Duck Seattle was 30 percent responsible and Ride the Ducks International 70 perecent responsible.
The blame shifted to 33 percent and 67 percent for the damages for the victims on the charter bus.  The companies will pay out the damages accordingly.

Phuong Dinh smiled when she learned she'd been awarded more than $25 million dollars. 
Dinh was severely injured in the crash and has had numerous surgeries including a hip replacement.

"What happened in here is full vindication," said Karen Koehler, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "The defense position was that people that didn't have broken bones  were fine and the jury said no they weren't. No one who is this was fine."

"Obviously we believe that was the right decision that was reached. There's nobody in this courtroom that doesn't feel sad and sorry for the horrible loss and tragic accident that happened. I hope this trial brings some degree of closure," said Steve Puz, attorney for the State of Washington.

KIRO-7 found Ride the Ducks Seattle and Ride the Ducks International both carry extensive insurance totally more than $171 million dollars.

Brian Tracey, the CEO and President of Ride the Ducks Seattle, was not in the courtroom on Thursday. His spokesperson told KIRO-7 Tracey felt today was about the victims and didn't want to take away from that.  
On Thursday afternoon, Ride the Ducks Seattle issued the following statement:

“Since the tragic accident on September 24, 2015, Ride the Ducks of Seattle owners, management and team members have always wanted to do right by everyone affected by the accident, but have been limited by constraints in the legal process. Today, they jury’s verdict puts us one step closer to that goal. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think of those lives that were forever changed that day.  

Since the accident, we’ve made significant structural changes to the critical parts 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. 

We’ve been working hard to regain the trust of those we serve and will continue to do so in the future.”

Jan. 25 Update: 

The four defendants in the Ride the Ducks civil trial gave their closing arguments on Friday and took turns blaming each other.

Ride the Ducks International went first and was quick to blame Ride the Ducks Seattle.

Attorney Jack Snyder said Ride the Ducks Seattle failed to implement the axle fix that was recommended in a service bulletin sent in October 2013.  Snyder told the jury there wasn't a construction defect.

Snyder refuted criticism over Ride the Ducks International for its decision not to involve the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to issue a recall. He claimed the service bulletin had more information than a recall and that the duck vehicle community that it applied to was effectively notified by the service bulletin.

He said Seattle was the only location that failed to do the work.

"It is uncontradicted that they understood what this service bulletin meant, you make the decision why it was not implemented," said Jack Guthrie, attorney for Ride the Ducks International.

Ride the Ducks Seattle blamed Ride the Ducks International and claimed the service bulletin was only a recommendation, not a repair.

Attorney Pat Buchanan said the mechanic chose to do the visual inspection, checking the wheels for canting or tipping instead.

When it came to damages, she asked the jurors to be reasonable.  "When you award damages it is not about symbolism it is about making that person whole," said Pat Buchanan, the attorney for Ride the Ducks Seattle.

The State of Washington told jurors the Aurora Bridge is not to blame for the deadly crash. Steve Puz, the attorney for the State of Washington said Ride the Ducks International and Ride the Ducks Seattle are both responsible.

"There is nothing about the roadway that led to the axle failure. That accident could have happened anywhere along the Ride the Ducks route, anytime," said Puz.

Tad Seder, the attorney for the city of Seattle told jurors the bridge is not to blame for the crash. He said a center barrier would have increased accidents on the bridge.

The attorneys for all four defendants discussed damages. On Thursday, the plaintiff's attorney asked the jurors to award each plaintiff a minimum of $3 million. The attorneys for the defendants recommended much lower awards, with most plaintiffs getting thousands, instead of millions.

The jury now has the case and is expected to start deliberating on Monday morning.

KIRO 7 will be notified when a verdict is reached.

Jan. 24 Update: 

Closing arguments began in the Ride the Ducks civil trial on Thursday. The attorney for the plaintiffs told the jury Ride the Ducks International is most to blame for the deadly crash in 2015.

Five international students from North Seattle College were killed when the axle on the duck vehicle broke and it slammed into a charter bus. The students were on an orientation tour on Sept. 24, 2015, on the Aurora Bridge.

Koehler says Ride the Ducks International bears 50 percent of the responsibility for manufacturing the flawed duck vehicle. She also said the company failed to notify federal authorities when it discovered cracks in the axles of other stretch duck vehicles. Koehler says RTDI should have notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the cracks in the axles so they could issue a recall.

She told the jury Ride the Ducks Seattle is 30 percent responsible. Koehler cited poor maintenance and blamed CEO and President Brian Tracey for disregarding the advice of his own maintenance manager, who asked for more workers.

In her closing argument, Koehler said the state of Washington and city of Seattle are each 10 percent responsible for failing to add a center barrier to the bridge.

The jurors will be responsible for deciding who they think is responsible and awarding damages to more than 40 plaintiffs.

Jan. 16 Update: 

On Wednesday the City of Seattle presented its defense in the Ride the Ducks civil trial. The city and state are on teaming up in their  defense, both stating the Aurora Bridge isn't to blame for the deadly crash on the Aurora Bridge.

Five students from North Seattle College were killed when the axle on the Ride the Ducks vehicle broke causing it to careen into ongoing traffic and crash into a charter bus on Sept. 24, 2015.

The attorney for the city called the city's traffic engineer, Dongho Chang to answer questions about why there isn't a median barrier on the bridge.

Chang testified the Aurora Bridge is not a high collision roadway. He said adding a barrier could cause more accidents, which mirrored testimony given by the state's expert on Monday.

When Chang was asked why he didn't ban the duck vehicles from using the bridge, he responded that he did not have the authority. The attorney for the city took it one step further asking Chang if the duck vehicles are oversized vehicles. "My opinion is the duck is a legal vehicle to operate on public roadways, " answered Dongho Chang, City of Seattle's traffic engineer.

The attorney for the plaintiff cross-examined Chang and asked him about previous city engineers looking at the Aurora Bridge over the years and discussions about widening it and adding a barrier.

Jan. 14 Update: 

On Monday the State of Washington presented its defense in the civil trial over the deadly Ride the Ducks crash. The crash on the Aurora Bridge on Sept. 24, 2015, killed five students from North Seattle College and injured more than 60 other people.

Attorney Steve Puz, with the Washington State Attorney General's Office, told the jury the state of Washington and the city of Seattle are not responsible for the crash. Puz blamed Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks Seattle and poor maintenance of the vehicle’s axle. He said Ride the Ducks International should have recalled the stretch duck vehicles for axle repairs. Puz claims Ride the Ducks Seattle should have done the repair work required in the service bulletin sent by Ride the Ducks International.

“This case isn’t about the bridge. This case is about an axle defect on a stretch duck that started as a crack and grew and spread until it caused the axle of duck 6 to fracture,” Puz told the jury.

The state called a traffic engineer Larry Bullard, from Texas A&M Transportation Institute as a witness. Lance Bullard testified that adding a barrier can cause more crashes.

“You have to be careful when you install a barrier because a barrier is a hazard and you install when you need them and only when it does more good than harm,” testified Lance Bullard, traffic engineer.

He told jurors the collision data did not warrant a center barrier and believes the configuration of the bridge was safe the day of the crash. When asked about adding a barrier he said reducing the lanes and adding a barrier would increase congestion and increase accident frequency.

When Bullard was cross examined he was asked if he'd visited the bridge before forming his opinions. He told the jury he examined it using Google Earth, not  in-person.

The plaintiff's attorney also questioned whether Bullard had all of the collision data for the Aurora Bridge when he did his analysis. Bullard told the jury he was told by the city and state that he did have all of the data.

The city of Seattle presented its opening statement just before the jury was dismissed for the day.

“This was a terrible, terrible accident, but it was an outlier and unpredictable because nothing like this had happened before,” said attorney Tad Seder, defending the city of Seattle.

Dec. 18, 2018 Update: 

Phuong Dinh, one of the youngest victims in the Ride the Ducks crash, testified Wednesday.

Dinh was the most severely injured survivor. She is the lead plaintiff in the civil suit against Ride the Ducks Seattle, Ride the Ducks International, the City of Seattle and the State of Washington.

Dinh was 18-years-old and a freshman at North Seattle College in Sept. 2015. She was riding on the left side of the charter bus when the duck vehicle lost control and slammed into her side of the bus on the Aurora Bridge on Sept. 24, 2015.

She spent weeks in the hospital and even longer in a nursing home. She had to have her left hip replaced and will need her knee replaced, according to doctors who testified. Her left leg is shorter than her right and she walks with a limp.

Dinh was very active before the crash. She played basketball and enjoyed the outdoors. Dinh was scheduled to testify last month, but was delayed when court was canceled after a juror became sick.

Dec. 5, 2018 Update: 

The parents of HaRam Kim testified in the civil trial on Wednesday from Korea, using Skype. An interpreter in the courtroom relayed questions to the couple.

HaRam Kim, 20, was killed in the crash on Sept. 24, 2015 on the Aurora Bridge. Kim had arrived from Korea a week before the crash to study English for a year at North Seattle College.

Her parents testified they spoke to their daughter for an hour on the phone each day and she sent them photos from Seattle. Kim was the oldest of three daughters.

The parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court but it was dismissed by the judge because they are not U.S. citizens.  There is still a legal claim for the net economic loss to Kim's estate, so they were called as witnesses in the civil suit.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Karen Koehler, was very limited on the scope of questions she was allowed to ask Kim's parents.

Soon Won Kim is a pastor and told the jury his daughter was very interested in helping other people. He encouraged her to travel to expand her perspective. Kim had already traveled to Japan, China and Australia, before she decided to go to Seattle to study  English.

She helped at her church in Korea, organized the school play and was a talented musician. The jury was shown a video of HaRam Kim playing the piano.

The plaintiff's attorney expects to wrap up her case by Dec. 17. The defendant, Ride the Ducks International, will present its case next, followed by Ride the Ducks Seattle, the State of Washington and City of Seattle.

Nov. 29, 2018 Update: 

On Thursday Brian Tracey, the CEO and president of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, testified in the civil trial.

"We did everything that we could do, knowing what we knew at the time, it was an accident," Brian Tracey told the jury.

Tracey was called as witness by the attorney for the plaintiffs. Attorney Katherine Koehler focused on safety and peppered Tracey with questions about who is responsible for maintaining the vehicles to make sure they're safe.

Five people were killed when the duck vehicle lost control and slammed in to a charter bus full of students from North Seattle College. Investigators found the axle broke and a wheel fell off forcing the driver of the duck vehicle to lose control.

"It was the worst day of my life and there isn't a moment I don't think about it every single day," said Tracey.

Accident investigators found there was a service bulleting from Ride the Ducks International in 2013 about re-enforcing the axle. Investigators say Ride the Ducks of Seattle failed to complete the work required in the service bulletin.

The safety bulletin warned the wheels could start to cant or tip indicating the axle was compromised.

The repair required welding to reinforce the axel Tracey said the service bulletins were the responsibility of his operations manager and maintenance manager. Previous testimony in the trial revealed 80 percent of the service bulletins Ride the Ducks Seattle received were not completed.

"I did not know anything about the safety bulletins," Tracey told the jury.

The attorney for the plaintiffs questioned Tracey about who was responsible for overseeing safety of the duck vehicles.

Tracey said he hired the right people to take care of safety and pointed to his operations manager, Ryan Johnan, and maintenance manager, Joe Hatten. Koehler questioned if Tracey trusted their judgement, why didn't he hire more mechanics. The maintenance manager testified early that he'd asked for more mechanics for years.

In a civil trial, jurors get a chance to write down questions and the judge reads them. One juror asked if Tracey feels personally responsible for the crash.

"I do, because I'm the president and CEO of the company," said Tracey," The buck stops with me, so I do feel responsible."

Nov. 26, 2018 Update: 

Members of a family injured in the Ride the Ducks crash four years ago testified Monday in the civil trial. The Hiraoka family traveled from Japan to tell the jury about the crash and the impact the injuries has had on their lives.

Dr.Toshihiko Hiraoka brought his wife and sons to visit Seattle in September 2015. He studied ophthalmology at the University of Washington 20 years ago.

The Ride the Ducks tour was new since the family had lived in the city and they wanted to try it.

The family talked about the crash. Dr. Hiraoka told the jury he hit his head and fainted. One of his sons was ejected onto the Aurora Bridge. His wife, Sonoko Hiraoka, was pinned between the seats and wasn't moving after the crash.

Sonoko Hiraoka was the most injured. When she returned home to Japan she spent another three months in the hospital. She severely injured her leg and hip. Hiraoka was used to being active. As a young adult she was a member of the Japanese National Skiing Team. Three years after the crash, she still walks with a limp.

Dr. Hiraoka testified he had trouble concentrating and needs help when he does surgeries in Japan. During cross examination an attorney for the City of Seattle questioned if the crash was to blame or Dr. Hiraoka’s age, 63.

Nov. 6, 2018 Update: 

On Tuesday, the jury was taken to a South Seattle warehouse to view the damaged Ride the Ducks vehicle and the wrecked charter bus. The jury was able to walk around and look at the vehicles to get perspective and to help understand the evidence presented in the courtroom. They weren't allowed to talk to each other or ask any questions. The attorneys didn't talk, but just stood back and watched jurors take it all in.

The vehicles sat several few feet apart. There is a gaping hole in the side of the charter bus, several seats are missing, the metal is crumpled and the glass is shattered. The duck vehicle has much less damage. The front left side is dented and scratched where it hit the bus.

All five passengers who died were on the charter bus.

Oct. 30, 2018 Update: 

Joe Hatten, the maintenance manager for Ride the Ducks of Seattle, testified on Tuesday that he'd asked owner Brian Tracey to hire more mechanics. He said he was denied more help for years as the company acquired more duck vehicles.

Hatten testified he was concerned something could happen and said he even warned management.

He was asked about the service bulletin regarding the axles for the stretch ducks and said he chose to do visual inspections in lieu of making the repairs. The plaintiff's attorney, Karen Koehler, made it clear that the service bulletin didn't say visual inspections could be done in lieu of making the repairs. Hatten said he didn't have anyone in his shop able to complete the welding required by the service bulletin.

On Tuesday, a former duck captain Sarah Chido testified that she had a weird experience while driving duck vehicle No. 6 on the Aurora Bridge four days before the crash. She said she called for mechanics to come inspect the boat during the tour. When they didn't find anything wrong, she continued the tour. She made notes on an inspection form and then scribbled them out. She said that part of the form was for service requests and because they had looked and not found anything, she chose to cross out the notes.

Two more plaintiffs testified on Tuesday, a nanny from Switzerland and a woman from Michigan who was in Seattle to visit her cousin. Both women were on the duck boat when it crashed  and suffered injuries. They both cried during their testimony as they talked about the accident.

Oct. 29, 2018 Update: 

One of the youngest survivors of the Ride the Ducks crash testified Monday afternoon. Mazda Hutapea was riding on the charter bus as a student ambassador for North Seattle College.

She told the jury she didn’t see the Duck vehicle coming when it crashed she was thrown into the air and landed on the steps by the door to the bus. She was afraid the bus was going to explode.

Hutapea was taken to the hospital and then to an assisted living center. She went from wheelchair to a walker to crutches. While her physical injuries are healing, her emotional wounds are deep.

“It’s sad cause I really want to go back to that time when I was happy," said Mazda Hutapea, 21. “Some of us may still suffer physically but mentally it will stick in our head forever.”

Oct. 24, 2018 Update: 

On Wednesday managers of Ride the Ducks Seattle were called to testify in the civil suit.

Ryan Johnson was the director of operations at Ride the Ducks at the time Duck number crashed on the Aurora Bridge. He told the jury he didn't monitor the maintenance. He was not a mechanic.

"Maintenance is our maintenance manager's responsibility and I was his supervisor," said Johnson.

Johnson testified that he received the service bulletins and sent them on to the maintenance manager. There wasn't a system in place to keep track what service bulletins had been implemented.

The director of safety also testified. He told the jury he wasn't a mechanic and wasn't involved with safety bulletins. He said if a Duck vehicle had an incident, like bumping into the side of the Aurora Bridge on a tour, the vehicle had to be inspected by maintenance to make sure it was safe before the next tour.

An international student form North Seattle College student who was on the bus when it crashed was also called to testify.

Seohee Bak, 23, said she realized they'd been in a crash when she landed on the floor. She arrived in Seattle from South Korea the week before the crash.

Her boyfriend in South Korea testified via Skype that the she has nightmares and has suffered from depression since the crash.

Oct. 23, 2018 update: 

An expert witness told jurors Tuesday that a center barrier would’ve prevented the 2015 crash between a Ride the Ducks vehicle and a bus carrying North Seattle College students. Five people were killed and dozens were injured in the crash.

Civil engineer Dr. Brian Pfeifer pointed to studies from the city of Seattle and state of Washington dating back to 1993 that indicated a center barrier would improve safety. He determined two types of barriers considered by the city and state would have worked, a 32-inch tall vertical barrier or a 32-inch-tall zipper barrier similar to the one on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“An impact would not have occurred between the Duck and the bus,” Pfeifer testified.

An axle broke on a Ride the Ducks vehicle, causing it to veer left into oncoming traffic, eventually hitting the bus.

Pfeifer cited studies showing similar-sized barriers stopping box trucks going higher speeds than the Duck was. He said the center of gravity on the Duck is 38 inches which would have allowed a the 32-inch barrier to stop it.

The attorney representing victims’ families, Karen Kohler, asked Pfeifer if the Duck vehicle would’ve launched over such a barrier.

“No,” he said.

Pfeifer also discussed how the vehicle’s design would keep it grounded.

“It’s the undercarriage of the vehicle that’s taking the load,” Pfeifer said.

Dr. Pfeifer explained what he believes would’ve happened if the Duck vehicle hit a 32-inch barrier.

“What I would expect would there would be the impact, a lot of damage to the front left corner of the duck, a little rebound,” Pfeifer said. “And then it would come down and follow the length of the barrier and come to rest against the barrier.

The attorney for the state questioned Pfeifer’s ability to compare a Duck boat to other vehicles, pointing out he’d never studied the impact between a Duck vehicle and a bus.

The jury came back with some follow-up questions regarding the scope of Dr. Pfeifer’s analysis.

Ultimately, it will be up to them to decide who to trust and who, if anyone, is at fault for the devastating crash.

Oct. 18, 2018 update: 

Claudia Derschmidt of Austria was killed in the Ride the Ducks crash on the Aurora Bridge. On Thursday, her sons testified in the civil trial resulting from that crash.

"I miss her every day," said Moritz Derschmidt, 22, who cried as he talked about his mother.

Claudia Derschmidt and her son Felix, then 15, came to Seattle together. Felix planned to attend Roosevelt High School; his mom would go to North Seattle College. As a teacher, she saw it as an opportunity to improve her English and stay close to her son.

Felix told the jury he was reluctant to go to school on Sept. 24, 2015, but his mom encouraged him. He remembers the last time he saw her.

"I remember it was a really long hallway. At the end of the hallway, I turned around and I saw her in the hallway laughing," remembered Felix Derschmidt.

When he heard about the crash, he tried to text her, she didn't answer. That night, police and a priest arrived at the home where he was waiting.

Felix flew back to Austria without his mother.

Their father, Wolfram Derschmidt also testified; the parents had recently divorced and stayed friends.

Jurors were shown many photographs of the Derschmidt family enjoying the outdoors. They were avid skiers and snowboarders who made the most of living in Austria.

Oct. 17, 2018 update: 

The driver of the bus struck by the Ride the Ducks vehicle in the deadly crash took the stand Wednesday morning. He described the minute he saw the Duck vehicle cross the centerline as jurors watched the video in the courtroom.

“I saw this Duck coming across the centerline and I guess my first reaction was—what’s going on,” Clouse remembered. He said he tried to move to the right lane to get out of the way but there wasn’t time. “It was a terrible noise, there was glass flying everywhere.”

When he freed himself from the wreckage he said he turned around and the floor of the bus was buckled. He said he didn’t see any passengers and knows he must have been in shock. Donald Clouse didn’t drive a charter bus again for 10 months after the crash. He told they jury he has been diagnosed with depression and PTSD. His wife testified he isn’t the same and suffers nightmares.

Two victims who were on the Duck vehicle took the stand and talked about the crash. Susan and Tim Gesner were visiting their son in Seattle when they decided to take the Ride the Ducks tour.

Susan Gesner said she is haunted by the crash. “9-24-2015 is my personal 9-11. It’s permanently embedded in my brain, what I couldn't do to help people, to help myself. It haunts me,” Gesner said through her tears.

She told the jury her physical injuries are healing but she doesn’t think the emotional wounds ever will.

Oct. 16, 2018 update:

The trial over a fatal Ride the Ducks crash in Seattle three years ago got underway Tuesday morning as attorneys for three of the parties delivered their opening statements. The attorneys for City of Seattle and the state of Washington chose to delay their openings. The trial officially began Oct. 1.

Karen Koehler, the attorney for the victims started her opening statement Tuesday morning. Koehler wore a nautical captain’s hat as she delivered her opening statement, taking the jurors on a “Ride the Ducks” tour of sorts.

The first witness called was Eric Bishop, the driver of the Ride the Ducks vehicle. Bishop described the moment he knew something was wrong. When video of the crash was shown to jurors he put his head in his hand and could be heard gasping at one point. He told the jury how seriously he took safety and told them he had no idea there had been a service bulletin issued concerning the axle on the Duck vehicles.

Witnesses of the crash are scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

Previous coverage:

More than 40 victims are suing the city and state in the crash that killed five people and injured more than 60 others in September 2015.

Earlier this year, the City of Seattle settled with 12 of the victims' families for more than $2 million.

In the lawsuit for Monday’s trial, there are questions whether the city and state could have prevented the crash with safety improvements on the Aurora Bridge.

The trial is expected to last four to five months.

The investigation by the National Transportation Safety board showed the crash was caused by an axle that broke on the duck boat, causing it to veer into the path of a tour bus carrying international students from North Seattle College.

Since then, there has been debate on whether a median on the Aurora Bridge could have prevented the crash.

The state owns the structure and the city manages traffic, as a judge and the attorney for victims said in a pre-trial deliberation.

In 2003, a state study cited the lack of a center barrier as a safety risk. It recommended sidewalks under the bridge deck to widen lanes and a barrier being installed.

The attorney for the victims and their families tells us she's also after politicians to try to get safety improvements done.

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