The parents of two Hungarian students who were killed in a duck boat accident two years ago are in Philadelphia for the start of a trial to determine whether there should be a llimit on how much two vessel operators may have to pay in their wrongful death case.
Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16, whose group was visiting the U.S. through a church exchange program, drowned when their amphibious tour boat capsized and sank after being struck by an empty sludge barge in the Delaware River on July 7, 2010.
Their families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, N.J., which operated the tugboat guiding the barge upriver; Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga., which operated the tour boat; the city of Philadelphia, which owned the barge; and others.
Before the wrongful death lawsuit may proceed, however, a judge must decide whether a limit should be set on the financial liability of the two boat owners.
K-Sea and Ride the Ducks, citing an 1851 maritime law, want the judge to cap their financial liability based on the value of their own vessels involved in the crash: $1.65 million for the tug and $150,000 for the duck boat, said Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing the victims' families.
“They're saying to these parents, ‘The lives of your two only children are worth $1.8 million ... the same as our vessels,’” he said.
A Ride the Ducks spokesman said the company does not comment on pending litigation. A K-Sea spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The families of the victims appeared with their attorneys on Sunday in Center City for a media briefing. Attorneys for the parents, who are from a small city in northwestern Hungary bordering Austria and Slovakia, said their presence in Philadelphia for the proceedings is especially agonizing because Sunday was celebrated as Mother's Day in Hungary.
“Today is mother’s day in Hungary and two mothers who lost their only children in this horrific accident are spending mother’s day in Philadelphia, said Mongeluzzi.
“I don't think that my place is here today,” Aniko Takacs, Schwendtner's mother, said through attorney Peter Ronai. “It should be with Dora back at home.”
Maria Prem said tearfully that if she and her husband, Sandor, were back home, they would be visiting the grave of their son.
“But we don't really have any more holidays,” she said through Ronai. “We don't have any Christmas. We don't have anything anymore. There are no more holidays. There's just nothing.”
The tug pushed the 250-foot-long barge into and over the 33-foot-long duck boat as it sat idle and anchored in the active shipping lane, sending all 35 passengers and two crew members into the fast-moving river about 150 feet from the Philadelphia shoreline. Survivors were pulled from the murky water by firefighters, a passing ferry boat and bystanders who swam from shore.
The victims' bodies were recovered two days after the crash: Schwendtner was found more than a mile downriver and Prem surfaced when the duck boat was being pulled from the river bottom by a salvage barge.
The Limitation of Liability Act can be applied in accidents involving casualties when the shipowner can prove it was unaware of a problem beforehand.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs will argue that was not the case and errors by the duck boat pilot and the tug pilot, as well as insufficient training procedures and inadequate safety policies of their respective employers, all were factors in the crash.
“This accident wasn't a freak occurrence, it wasn't an aberration,” Mongeluzzi said. “It has its roots going back over years.”
In its 4,400-page report on the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said the duck boat overheated on the 103-degree day because a mechanic neglected to replace a radiator cap after an inspection the night before. The next day, the duck boat captain mistook the steam for an engine fire and shut down the vessel in the busy shipping channel where it was hit minutes later.
Co-counsel Andrew Duffy said the team plans to present evidence that the duck boat lacked an adequate emergency air horn and radio and was designed with overhead canopies that trapped the two victims underwater when the boat capsized. They also contend passengers were not instructed to put on life preservers until moments before the collision, when it was too late.
They also contend that K-Sea, the tug operator, long knew its policies barring cellphone use on duty were routinely ignored yet failed to take corrective action.
In November, tug pilot Matthew Devlin of Catskill, N.Y., was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to the maritime equivalent of an involuntary manslaughter charge. Prosecutors said he was on his cellphone amid a family emergency, moved to a part of the tug that blocked his view of the river and turned down a marine radio, stifling Mayday calls before the collision.
Ride the Ducks offers tours in Philadelphia; San Francisco; Branson, Mo.; Stone Mountain, Ga.; and the Cincinnati area. The company suspended its Philadelphia tours after the accident but resumed them the following spring with a shortened water route.
The victims' parents said they didn't understand the companies' actions or why the process is taking so long. Their attorneys said they expected the case to take years to conclude.
“Our son was pure and innocent with nowhere to hide,” said Prem’s parents through a translator. “Yet the big companies involved can hide behind an ancient law that limits the value of a human life to no more than a sunken boat.”
Schwendtner's father, Peter, said he wishes it was somehow possible to send the corporations to jail.
“I'd like to teach them a lesson so that this doesn't happen in the future,” he said through Ronai. “There are procedures and policies that should be in place and followed and they're not just there just for decoration. There has to be rules and there has to be justice.”