Video: Karen Koehler delivers her opening statement in the role of a duck boat captain during trial over a boat crash that left five people dead and dozens injured.
Delivering a compelling opening can be a challenge in product liability trials, where equipment specifications and similarly dry material are often central to a case. However, in openings at trial over a fatal duck boat crash, Karen Koehler artfully channeled a duck boat captain to detail her case and set the foundation for a nine-figure verdict.
Five people were killed and dozens more injured when a duck boat filled with passengers crossed a highway’s center line and crashed into an oncoming bus. The boat, a repurposed World War II-era vehicle that can operate on both roads and water, was supplied by Ride the Ducks International and used by its Seattle affiliate as a tour vehicle.
Koehler, of the Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore Law Firm, represented nearly 40 plaintiffs at trial against Ride the Ducks International and its Seattle affiliate, among other defendants. She argued the boat crashed in part because of a defective axle that was not properly replaced or maintained.
Koehler opened trial by donning a captain’s hat and plastic duck bill that hung around her neck.
“It’s September 24, 2015, and I’d like you to join us on a duck ride,” Koehler begins, taking jurors back to the date of the crash. “There [are] a few things I’m going to tell you about safety and what to expect on this ride,” Koehler says, acting as the hypothetical captain of the boat. “And a few things I’m not going to tell you about, because, honestly, I don’t know those things.
As if conducting a tour of her own, Koehler, as captain, details the boats’ history, the tour group defendants, and the issues with the axle she claims led to the crash.
This novel approach helps maintain juror interest in details of axle housings, background and other potentially dry information.
Koehler highlights the parent company’s role of manufacturer as she accuses it of shirking its duties. “It will admit it was a manufacturer, but it wasn’t registered with our safety administration. It will admit it was a manufacturer, but if there was a problem it wouldn’t do a recall,” Koehler says, as she details prior axle failures and walks jurors through photos of problematic parts.
Meanwhile, Koehler says, the Seattle affiliate ignored a critical service bulletin on the vehicle.
“I love my job. I like being a captain,” Koehler tells jurors. They’ve trained us how to do our job and told us how to do it, and I’m fine with all of that, because I don’t know about all of this other stuff. “Koehler says.
“Here’s what I don’t know, and this is a little troubling to me. I don’t know that Ride the Ducks Seattle is understaffed in their maintenance department to such a degree that the head of maintenance has repeatedly told management that they need more mechanics. These are very old ducks.”
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Koehler moves between character as duck boat captain and a more traditional attorney’s perspective throughout her opening, doffing the captain’s hat and returning to it as her delivery changes. The change in style holds jurors’ attention while allowing her to detail grave elements of the case in a more traditional delivery, without seeming irreverent.
Koehler’s riveting opening helped set up a $123 million verdict for the plaintiffs, with jurors assigning the lion’s share of responsibility to the parent company and the remainder to the affiliate.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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