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Federal Trial In Philadelphia To Determine $$ Risk In 2010 Fatal Duck Boat Crash

By Steve Tawa and Oren Liebermann

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The federal trial in the 2010 "duck boat" accident on the Delaware River that killed two Hungarian students has begun in Philadelphia.

At issue is whether an 1851 law that limits maritime liability to the value of the vessels involved should apply in this case.

During his opening statement this morning, Robert Mongeluzzi, the lawyer representing the families of the two victims, replayed the chilling video of the fateful encounter in 2010 between the anchored amphibious tour boat and a garbage barge being pushed by a tugboat (see previous story).

The barge slammed into the duck boat, which had stalled off Penn's Landing, during the water portion of its Old City tour.

Today, for the first time, Mongeluzzi showed video indicating that just before impact, 16-year-old victim Dora Schwendtner threw a life preserver to a duck boat crew member who had leaped from the foredeck of the disabled duck boat as the barge bore down.

An instant later, the video shows, the barge ran over the duck boat, forcing it underwater.

Dora's father, Peter spoke through translator Peter Ronai.

"I'm speechless," said her father, Peter Schwendtner through Ronai. "I don't even know how to respond. I'm completely broken up."

During his opening statement, Mongeluzzi told the judge in this non-jury trial that the accident was not a "freak, unpredictable occurrence" but caused by the negligence of the companies that operated the tugboat and the tour boat.

He blamed the tugboat company's "ineffective, unclear, inconsistent" policy on cell phone use by crewmembers, and "systematic failures" in the design of the Ride The Ducks boat as well as that company's training of crewmembers.

The companies want to limit their liability through an 1851 maritime law to the value of the vessels: about $1.7 million in all. They say the crash was an isolated incident, the result of tugboat pilot Matthew Devlin failing to keep a watch because he was on his cell phone with a family emergency.

The two companies blame each other for the crash.

A lawyer for the tugboat company, K-Sea, puts the blame solely on the first mate of the tugboat, Devlin, who last November was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to the maritime equivalent of an involuntary manslaughter charge (see related story).

Prosecutors said not only was Devlin on the phone, he 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.

During an opening statement today by an attorney for the operators of the duck boat, the company laid the blame squarely on the tug boat company, saying its duck boat was a "sitting duck" as it lay at anchor after its engine conked out.  The duck boat lawyer pointed out that the Delaware River is 2,100 feet wide where the collision occurred, and the tug boat would have had plenty of clearance to push its barge around the disabled duck boat.

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