Pa. judge asks duck boat parties to try to settle

On the second day of a federal trial stemming from a 2010 duck boat crash that killed two Hungarian students, the presiding judge put the proceeding on hold and told the parties in the case to try and hammer out a settlement.

U.S. District Judge Thomas O'Neill, who is presiding in the non-jury trial that started Monday, wants attorneys to negotiate in an effort to reach an agreement before the case goes on. It's unclear how long talks will be allowed to continue, but the trial, which was expected to last at least a month, will resume if an agreement can't be reached.

Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16, whose group was visiting the U.S. through a church exchange program, drowned when their amphibious sightseeing boat was slammed by an empty sludge barge, capsized and sank 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; and others.

Before the wrongful death case may proceed, however, O'Neill was tasked with deciding 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 their financial liability capped at the value of their vessels involved in the crash: $1.65 million for the tug and $150,000 for the duck.

"What's being discussed is settlement of the wrongful death, personal injury cases," said Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing the parents of the victims. "If the cases settle, then (determining a liability cap) becomes irrelevant."

The judge made his request to attorneys for the families, Ride the Ducks and K-Sea after testimony concluded Monday, Mongeluzzi said. He said the talks will be overseen by U.S. District Judge John Padova.

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 families of Schwendtner and Prem assert the boat companies were rife with unclear safety policies and ineffective training and procedures that caused the crash. Attorneys for K-Sea Transportation and Ride the Ducks each blamed the other — and tug pilot Matthew Devlin, who was sentenced in November to a year in prison for the crash.

Devlin was on his cellphone dealing with a family emergency and didn't see that the barge was bearing down on the boat. He pleaded guilty to the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.