Ride the Duck Int'l fined $500k for federal violations found after Aurora Bridge crash

The Branson, Missouri, company behind Seattle’s “duck boat” tours is being fined $500,000 by the federal government for unwitting legal violations uncovered following investigation into the 2015 Aurora Bridge accident that killed five people, according to an announcement made Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ride the Ducks International LLC failed to live up to its obligations as a manufacturer of vehicles as defined by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, according to a consent order issued by the administration. Ride the Ducks officials, who did not contest the government’s determination, said they did not realize they were considered manufacturers under the law.

The company was ordered to pay $480,000 in civil penalties and $20,000 to become compliant with the Safety Act. The company could be fined an additional $500,000 for failure to comply with the consent order demanding the fines, as well as future violations.

“Companies have an obligation to understand their responsibilities under the law, especially when those laws are in place to protect the public’s safety,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This action shows that the Department of Transportation is always on the lookout to protect those who travel on our roads.”

Ride the Ducks International is a company based in Branson, Missouri, that manufactures amphibious vehicles from military surplus parts and licenses them for tours at affiliates throughout the United States and Guam, including Ride the Ducks of Seattle.

According to the Transportation Department’s consent order, on Oct. 1, 2013, the company issued a service bulletin to all licensees that the front axles on its “Stretch Duck” vehicles, manufactured since 1996, had potential defects in their front axles that could cause them to fracture. In that bulletin and repeated reminders, the company advised its licensees to repair the vehicles prior to 2014.

Nearly two years later, on Sept. 24, 2015, a Stretch Duck in the Seattle fleet crashed into a 2009 MCI motor coach on the Aurora Bridge between Fremont and Queen Anne, killing five people and injuring 50 more. Subsequent investigation revealed the vehicle’s front axle had not been repaired as advised.

At least 24 personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits had been filed against Ride the Ducks International and its independent Seattle licensee as of September.

Though Ride the Ducks International warned licensees of the need to repair defects in its vehicles, the Transportation Department investigation determined that the company is defined as a “manufacturer” of vehicles under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and was thus subject to more rigorous standards.

For example, vehicle manufacturers are required to provide copies of recall and service bulletins to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which Ride the Ducks International did not do.

Representatives for the company told administration officials that they “acted on a good faith belief that only Coast Guard marine safety regulations and state level road safety rules” applied to their vehicles, but agreed that they had been ignorant of the law.

“We have worked collaboratively with NHTSA to understand their requirements and to improve these communications going forward,” Ride the Ducks spokesman Dale Weiss wrote in an announcement Nov. 15. “... We are committed to doing everything we can to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy, and we remain grateful to many who have worked alongside us in this effort.”