May 6, 2012 / 11:02 PM / 5 years ago

Parents of two drowned Duck Boat riders fight liability cap

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A maritime law cap on liability should not apply in the case of two Hungarian students who died visiting Philadelphia when a barge struck their tourist Duck Boat, lawyers for their parents said on Sunday.

Szabolcs Prem, 20, and fellow student Dora Schwendtner, 16, drowned in the Delaware River in July 2010, after the collision between the two boats, which occurred in full view of Philadelphia's bustling Center City.

Thirty-five other passengers on the duck boat survived. A duck boat is an amphibious vehicle, popular for tours in many cities, that can drive on city streets and plunge into water.

The victims' parents spoke to reporters ahead of a federal trial opening on Monday to determine whether the boat companies, Ride the Ducks and K-Sea Transportation Partners, which operated a tugboat that was pushing the barge, can claim federal maritime liability limits.

"There is still no peace in our hearts, nor an end to this nightmare," said Sandor Prem, the father of Szabolcs, who went by the nickname Szeb.

A statement by the Philadelphia law firm that represents the families of the two students said that, under maritime law, the companies are claiming their liability in the accident would be limited to $150,000 for Ride the Ducks and $1.65 million for K-Sea. The law would limit damages to the values of the boats, attorneys for the families said.

A spokesman for Ride the Ducks said his firm does not comment on pending litigation, and a representative for K-Sea, which has changed its name to Kirby Offshore Marine following an acquisition, declined to comment.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing the families, said if they are successful in defeating the maritime law limits on damages, then the case would return to Pennsylvania state courts. He said it could take years before the case is resolved.

One of the legal issues in the case already has been decided. The operator of the tugboat, Matthew Devlin, 35, was sentenced last November to a year and a day in prison after pleading guilty to a federal criminal misconduct charge that is the maritime equivalent to involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors said Devlin was distracted by repeated telephone calls from his wife about their son's health, and that he was in the tugboat's lower wheelhouse where visibility was limited.

"We still suffer," said Peter Schwendtner, the father of the 16-year-old Hungarian girl, Dora, who was his only child.

"And we still cannot believe that there is still such low regard for the lives of those lost before the prime of their lives," he said.

Prem said that he would like to see officials from the companies jailed. He acknowledged that will not happen, but said that he wanted to teach the companies a lesson.

"There have to be rules if there is to be justice," he said.

Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Eric Walsh

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