District Court Dismisses Federal Charges in Duck Boat Tragedy

Earlier this year, we reported on the decision issued by Chief Magistrate Judge David Rush of the Western District of Missouri recommending that all federal criminal charges against the Captain (and two (2) shore-side managers) of a duck boat, which tragically sank on Table Rock Lake in Missouri in July 2018 and led to the deaths of seventeen (17) people, be dismissed for lack of admiralty jurisdiction. The government filed numerous objections to the findings of fact and conclusions of law in the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation.  Both sides filed supplemental briefing and other supporting documents for the District Court’s review.  The government’s chief argument was that the Magistrate Judge erred in holding that the navigability of Table Rock Lake was a legal issue on which prior Eighth Circuit precedent binds the Court.  Specifically, the Report and Recommendation had relied on a decades old civil case (Edwards v. Hurtel, 724 F.2d 689, 689-90 (8th Cir. 1984)), in which the district court and Eighth Circuit had taken judicial notice that the lake was recreational in nature and not used for commercial shipping and/or otherwise navigable.  The government argued that the facts of the instant criminal matter, show “that the physical characteristics of the lake can, and do, support interstate commercial shipping, and that goods and people are currently transported on the lake across state lines for profit,” are different.  The government argued that it should have been permitted the opportunity to prove its facts at trial and the prior Circuit Court precedent relied upon in the Report and Recommendation is inapplicable and non-binding based on the facts of the present case.

As the Magistrate Judge’s recommended opinion would result in the dismissal of the case if accepted, the District Court Judge was required to conduct an independent review of the record, hearing transcript, parties’ briefing, and applicable law before rendering a final decision.  On December 3, 2020 District Judge Douglas Harpool issued a single page Order adopting the Report and Recommendation in full and dismissing the case (and all charges) against the defendants for lack of admiralty jurisdiction.  No independent analysis of the government’s objections or arguments was provided by the District Court. The Clerk of the Court promptly entered the judgment closing the case. The government has since appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  A briefing schedule will be set by the Circuit Court for early 2021.

A copy of the Order adopting the Report and Recommendation and dismissing the case can be found here.

For any questions about the decision or to learn more about the criminalization of admiralty matters in the United States, please contact us at info@chaloslaw.com.