PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A $17 million settlement was reached Wednesday in the wrongful-death case of two Hungarian students killed in a tour boat collision with a barge on the Delaware River.
Under terms of the surprise settlement approved by the court after two days of testimony in what was expected to be a monthlong federal trial, families of the two victims will split $15 million and 18 surviving passengers will split $2 million.
"The families are deeply grateful to the court for recognizing that their children were important and did not deserve to die in vain," said attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, representing the families of the victims.
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 an empty sludge barge, capsized and sank 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.
Another attorney for the families, Peter Ronai, said they "are not happy but they are relieved and look forward to returning home."
"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," Ronai said.
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 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 dealing with a family emergency and didn't see the barge was bearing down on the boat. 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."