With blue skies overhead and the city’s notorious drizzle nowhere in sight, Rebecca Rhodes West, in town to visit her best friend from high school, felt fortunate to be in Seattle that September day in 2015 — and she was eager to take advantage of it.
The night before, the two women and her friend’s daughter had gone to a Duran Duran concert. The next day, they headed for a sightseeing tour around the city. When the three of them arrived early to Ride the Ducks Seattle for their 11 a.m. tour, an employee told them they were in luck: A few seats were still open on Duck No. 6, set to depart at 10:30 a.m.
And so, they climbed aboard to join the earlier tour and changed their lives forever.
“We headed out and I remember it was a gorgeous day and the driver was telling us about all the different landmarks,” West, a married 47-year-old from Billings, Montana, said in a phone call on Wednesday. “As we crossed the bridge, he told us to look to the right because it’s a beautiful view. And then, I felt this sharp jerk and felt us veering to the left.”
In a split second, West heard the driver scream and “pure black” consumed her vision. Then, her body “just started pinballing, hitting anything and everything,” she said.
After that, West went blank. The next thing she remembers is looking into blue sky.
“I woke up on the ground,” she said. “I couldn’t move at all. I just laid there, crying, and I didn’t know if I was dead or alive. I only knew for sure when I heard people screaming and crying, and I could smell the vehicles and everything — I guess just the whole wreck, the absolute chaos around me.”
A King County jury on Monday awarded $4 million in damages to West for her physical and emotional injuries suffered after being ejected from the amphibious tour vehicle during the crash that killed five North Seattle College students and injured more than 60 people.
The verdict found both the vehicle’s manufacturer, Ride the Ducks International (RTDI) of Missouri, and its local operator, Ride the Ducks Seattle, jointly and separately liable for the crash. Jurors assigned 60 percent of the liability to RTDI, with the remaining 40 percent to the Seattle Ducks, while blaming both for the mechanical problems that led the Duck to lose control, cross the centerline and slam into an oncoming charter bus carrying the college students.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation previously had found that RTDI’s improper manufacture of the Duck vehicle with a defective axle, and the Seattle Ducks’ failure to replace it, caused the deadly crash.
West’s award, along with settlements of $1 million and $750,000 made to her friend Tami Matson and Matson’s daughter, Tiffani Haman, are the latest in a string of multimillion-dollar legal judgments and settlements in the wake of the deadly crash. Last month, the “captain” of the Duck that crashed received a $2 million settlement from RTDI. In April, a German au pair critically injured in the wreck received a $7 million settlement from RTDI and the Seattle Ducks firm, an independent licensee. In February, a King County jury awarded $123 million to victims and family members representing 40 people killed or injured in the crash.
West’s award and her friends’ settlements mark resolutions in what’s believed to the final lawsuit stemming from the crash.
Representatives for the Ducks companies did not respond to requests for comment.
“These two corporations have behaved about as irresponsibly as you possibly can,” said lawyer Darrell Cochran, who represented West with legal partner Michael Pfau. “Rebecca and her friends paid for a ticket to spend priceless time together, and now they have emotional and physical scarring for a lifetime instead. Unconscionable. Their defense was absurd given that the Duck’s wheel sheared off its axle, sending a 26,000-pound World War II artifact into an uncontrollable, catastrophic collision.”
In many ways, West said, she counts the jury’s award a blessing. The money will help cover costs for her ongoing medical problems and counseling, she said.
“It’s kind of closure,” she said.
But West added that her life will never be the same.
After she catapulted from the Duck and slammed onto the roadway, West was strapped to a body board and taken to Swedish Medical Center in Ballard. Doctors there used staples to close a gash in her head, remove glass embedded in her foot and otherwise tend to a long list of her injuries.
“My right ankle was sprained, my toes were broken, the top of my foot broken, and my tooth was shattered,” she said. “And, I had this giant hematoma across my middle, covering my hip. I was just completely purple and couldn’t move my leg.”
Since that day, West said she has undergone three hip surgeries and spent months using crutches and a walker to get around. She missed two months of work from her payroll job with Yellowstone County. Today, her foot remains in a full walking boot, and West said she’ll never walk the same. She also suffers chronic nerve pain and still goes to counseling for ongoing nightmares and panic attacks.
West said she and her friends in Seattle continue to grapple every day with triggers that take them back to that awful scene of carnage.
“What makes me sad is that people died and were injured for life, but it could’ve been prevented,” West said. “It’s devastating that it didn’t need to happen.”