UA Little Rock student wins SURF award to research outdated maritime law cited by lawyers in Missouri Duck Boat tragedy

Madeline Burke

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock student has received a $2,750 Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) award from the Arkansas Department of Education to research an outdated maritime law that lawyers invoked in an attempt to avoid or limit legal damages sought by victims and their family members in a tourist boat accident that killed 17 people last summer. 

Madeline Burke, a junior international and legal studies major and Donaghey Scholar from Little Rock, is thankful to receive the prestigious award that is a “great opportunity for people to research special topics of their interest.”

Burke said she was inspired to investigate the 1851 maritime law after reading newspaper articles that explained how lawyers for two companies, Ripley Entertainment Inc. and Branson Duck Vehicles, facing multiple lawsuits over the July 17 accident used the obscure law.

In an Oct. 18, 2018, article in the “Claims Journal,” Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said this type of filing is “common in claims related to maritime incidents,” and the “goal is to delay the multiple court cases to give the parties time for mediation.”

“One of the strategies of the lawyers was to use this outdated law to try to not pay the victims of this tragic accident or their families any money,” Burke said. “The law says that the ship owner’s liability is limited to the value of the vessel after the crash and any cargo that was on the vessel. The boat did not carry any cargo, only the tourists who stepped foot on that tragic ride. So essentially, the lawyers argued that the boat owner is only liable for what the vessel was worth after the crash.”

Burke will conduct her research this semester and into the summer under the mentorship of Dr. Casey Rockwell, assistant professor of marketing and advertising in the College of Business.

“In a time of crisis, we all want to be responsive, but what is our response? Do we ponder silently why this happened or do we take the time to engage in the conversation regarding the legal, societal, and political constructs that exist in the aftermath,” Rockwell said. “Maddie chose social activism through research. Her intent is to not only raise awareness of this crisis, but further engage a larger audience in the conversation of how laws, when not a perfect fit, are often contorted to meet new objectives. This further raises the question of whether modern laws need to be restrictive or have an adaptability for an ever-changing society.”

Burke will investigate the history of the law and the reasons why it was originally enacted as well as how the law has been used over the years leading up to the Missouri Duck Boat incident. The problem with some older laws, Burke points out, is that, over time, they are often used for purposes that fall far outside the original scope and intention of the law.

“This law was originally meant to protect ship owners from liability,” Burke said. “Back then, traveling across the ocean was very dangerous. This law was used to protect ship owners from being held responsible for accidents that were not their fault. Because the Duck Boat sunk and there was no freight on the boat, the company lawyers argued that they didn’t owe the victims and families anything.”

The award will cover the cost of Burke’s research materials as well as a trip to Montreal to present her research, “Duck and Cover: How the Outdated Maritime 1851 Limitation of Liability Act Shields Shipowners from Liability,” at the Academy of Legal Studies in Business Conference in August.

Upon the completion of her research, Burke plans to make a policy recommendation to change the law so it would allow victims and family members the right to sue for civil damages.

“The end goal of this research is a policy recommendation to change the law,” she said. “The law is over 150 years old and so outdated. My policy recommendation would be to not only protect ship owners, but to provide victims and family members with the right to seek compensation when it’s the right thing to do, just like when you see a tragic accident like the Missouri Duck Boat incident.”

Burke has a history of uncovering outdated laws. In 2017, her paper, “The 1920 Death on the High Seas Act: An Outdated and Ambiguous Admiralty Law Shielding Cruise Lines Companies from Civil Liability,” earned the top student honor, the Outstanding Student Research Paper award, at the Academy for Legal Studies in Business conference and was published in the Maritime Law Journal, a top business journal in the field

Her paper explored how the law protects cruise lines from certain civil lawsuits by limiting families from recovering only pecuniary damages, what the deceased would have made for the family if the family is dependent on the person who died. This limits family members from suing for monetary damages if the person who died is unemployed, retired, a minor, etc., since the family is not financially dependent on the victim.

“The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is proud to make the investment in graduate and undergraduate research through SURF, the Signature Experience Grants, undergraduate research grants, and the College of Business research funding,” Rockwell said. “Through these sources, Maddie has become a top researcher in this field as an undergraduate. It is really quite impressive.”

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