Aviation

Families of 4 killed in Misty Fjords floatplane crash sue cruise company, alleging it pressures excursion operators

SEATTLE — The families of four tourists killed in a Southeast Alaska floatplane crash last year have sued Holland America Line, alleging the Seattle-based cruise company pressures outside excursion operators to take unnecessary risks to meet cruise schedules and doesn’t warn passengers of dangers.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges Holland America knew of the dangers because passengers on previous trips had died in similar crashes. Rather than warning its passengers that such trips come with risks, the lawsuit says, Holland America merely requires floatplane excursion operators — most of which are independent businesses — to add the cruise line company to their insurance policies.

“Under maritime law, the Holland Defendants had a duty to warn passengers of these risks,” the lawsuit says. “Thus, the Holland Defendants response ... was to protect itself from liability rather than protect its cruise passengers — by mitigating associated risks or warning its passengers of the risks involved in floatplane excursions.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the families of Andrea McArthur, 55, and her 20-year-old daughter, Rachel McArthur, both of Woodstock, Georgia; Jacquelyn Komplin, 60, of Napa, California; and Janet Kroll, 77, of Mount Prospect, Illinois.

The four were among six people killed when a floatplane owned by Southeast Aviation of Ketchikan slammed into a mountainside while touring Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness in bad weather Aug. 5, 2021.

All of the flight’s passengers had been aboard Holland America’s ship Nieuw Amsterdam, which was docked in Ketchikan as part of a seven-day “Alaska Explorer” cruise, according to the lawsuit.

Also killed were pilot Rolf Lanzendorfer, 64, of Cle Elum, Kittitas County, who’s named as a defendant, and Mark Henderson, 69, of Napa, whose family is not a party to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges Lanzendorfer had only recently returned to work at Southeast Aviation after having been involved in another floatplane crash a month earlier. According to news reports, National Transportation and Safety Board regional chief Clint Johnson said Lanzendorfer was flying alone in a Southeast floatplane when he hit a buoy shortly after takeoff and flipped the plane.

The lawsuit claims that a Federal Aviation Administration investigation found Lanzendorfer acted “carelessly” when he failed to properly taxi and clear his takeoff in the July 9, 2021, crash.

The fatal Aug. 5, 2021, crash came as Lanzendorfer was trying to return to Ketchikan to get his passengers to the Holland America ship before it departed at 4 p.m. According to weather reports cited in the lawsuit, the cloud ceiling was as low as 600 feet that day.

The lawsuit notes that Misty Fjords National Monument “takes its name for the near constant precipitation ... which causes mist and low clouds that often cling to sheer cliffs rising from the fjords and obscure the mountaintops.”

The lawsuit alleges Lanzendorfer flew the floatplane “intentionally, carelessly, recklessly and with conscious disregard for the safety of the paying passengers ... into unsafe weather conditions, which increased the probability that serious harm and fatalities would result.”

The lawsuit notes that the tourists who were killed purchased their excursions through a private travel agent or operator. However, the lawsuit claims Holland America promoted those excursions in its literature and on its website, stating that “only by air can you fully appreciate the dramatic beauty of land slowly crafted by nature over tens of thousands of years.”

“They use these exciting excursions to sell cruises,” said Atlanta attorney Ranse Partin, the lead plaintiff attorney.

James Rogers, a Seattle lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Holland America failed to warn its passengers “of the dangers posed by these flights, which they well know.”

The lawsuit alleges that Holland America knows its schedules “heavily influence the tour schedules of shore excursion operators.” And while Holland America doesn’t provide the excursions, the cruise line advertises and markets them to “promote the overall cruise experience,” the lawsuit says, noting that both the cruise line and third-party operators benefit from high numbers of cruise passengers booking excursions.

The lawsuit also states that the NTSB has expressed concerns about this relationship and the pressures it puts on excursion providers. The agency reported that seaplane and floatplane excursions in Alaska were involved in 207 crashes involving 80 fatalities between January 2008 and June 2019.

“The mountainous terrain coupled with hazardous weather conditions, high aviation traffic and tight sightseeing floatplane tour schedules due to a desire for operators and cruise lines to maximize the number of participating passengers for increased profits, created an unreasonably dangerous excursion,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit refers to two other fatal floatplane crashes involving cruise passengers, including a June 2015 crash that killed eight passengers and the pilot on a similar excursion to view Misty Fjords National Monument. The NTSB in its final report “attributed that crash to scheduling pressures that force some seaplane operators to fly in marginal weather conditions.”

The agency asked the Cruise Lines International Association in a subsequent letter to investigate the dynamics of the relationship between cruise lines and excursion operators to try to mitigate some of those risks, the lawsuit claims.

A Holland America spokesperson, who declined to be named, said in a statement: “We were incredibly saddened by this tragedy and our hearts go out to the families of those who died.”

“This floatplane excursion was independently operated and purchased separately by the impacted guests and not sold through or advertised by Holland America Line,” the statement said. “Safety is of utmost importance to us, and our contracts with tour operators emphasize it as a top priority.”

An individual who identified himself as Jim Kosmos, answering a Monday phone call to the offices of Southeast Aviation, declined to provide his position with the company and said he had no comment on the lawsuit.

Records show Kosmos is the company’s owner.

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