PHILADELPHIA – The families of two Hungarian students killed two years ago when a tugboat-guided barge slammed into and sank their amphibious sightseeing boat in the Delaware River will split $15 million after a settlement was reached Wednesday, just days into a federal wrongful-death trial that had been expected to last a month.
Eighteen surviving passengers will share in $2 million in the deal, which was approved by a judge after two days of testimony.
The victims' families were on a plane returning to Hungary and were unaware a settlement had been reached, but their attorney Robert Mongeluzzi said they were "deeply grateful to the court for recognizing that their children were important and did not deserve to die in vain."
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, called a duck boat, was slammed by the empty sludge barge and capsized on July 7, 2010.
Their families filed wrongful-death lawsuits against K-Sea Transportation, of East Brunswick, N.J., which operated the tugboat guiding the barge upriver, and Ride the Ducks, of Norcross, Ga., which operated the tour boat.
Before the wrongful-death case could proceed, however, U.S. District Judge O'Neill was to determine 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, wanted 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 boat.
On Tuesday, O'Neill asked attorneys to try to hammer out an agreement before the case continued, and U.S. District Judge John Padova began working with the parties on settlement talks.
"The families told us from the outset that they had a duty to honor their children and to do what they could to ensure that the lives of other children were not put at risk by unsafe operators of tourist boats, barges or tugboats," said another attorney for the families, Peter Ronai, a Hungarian speaker who also acted as an interpreter for the parents.
The tug pushed the 250-foot-long barge into and over the 33-foot-long duck boat as it sat idle and anchored in an active shipping lane along its route, sending 37 people into the 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.
In a video shown on the first day of the trial Monday, Schwendtner could be seen throwing a life jacket to a deckhand who jumped from the boat seconds before the collision and survived.
The families of Schwendtner and Prem argued the boat companies were rife with unclear safety policies and ineffective training and procedures that caused the crash. K-Sea Transportation and Ride the Ducks blamed each other and tug pilot Matthew Devlin, who was sentenced in November to a year in prison for the crash.
Devlin 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. He pleaded guilty to the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.
Mongeluzzi, the families' attorney, said that while their suffering continues, "they have renewed hope in the American justice system and that stricter regulations on cellphone use and tourist boat operating procedures might avert similar catastrophes on and off the water."
Ride the Ducks president Chris Herschend said in a statement that the company was "glad to bring closure to this sad chapter, most importantly for the families involved."
"As parents ourselves, we are sorry for what they have experienced," he said. "I personally want them to know that I'd move heaven and earth to undo what happened if I could."
A spokesman for K-Sea said the company would not have any comment on the case.
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.