Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Seaman’s Manslaughter Charges Against BP Employees

On March 11, a panel of the Fifth Circuit (Higginbotham, Jones, Prado) issued a decision in United States v. Kaluza, a criminal prosecution arising out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.  Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were “well site leaders,” the highest-ranking BP employees working on the Deepwater Horizon rig.  A federal grand jury indicted Kaluza and Vidrine on 23 counts:  11 counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1112, 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1115, and 1 count of negligent discharge under the Clean Water Act in violation of 33 U.S.C. §§ 1319(c)(1)(A) and 1321(b)(3).  The defendants moved to dismiss the seaman’s manslaughter counts on the grounds that, among other things, the Deepwater Horizon was outside of the territory covered by the seaman’s manslaughter statute and defendants were not within the categories of persons covered by the seaman’s manslaughter statute.  The district court rejected the defendants’ extraterritoriality argument but granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the seaman’s manslaughter counts for failure to charge an offense.  The government appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed.  First, it held that the defendants, by failing to cross-appeal, had waived their extraterritoriality argument. Second, it held that the seaman’s manslaughter statute, which applies to “[e]very captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel,” encompasses “a class of persons dealing with the operation and navigation of the vessel” and does not include the defendants, whose duties were unrelated to the “transportation function” of the Deepwater Horizon.

—Todd Aagaard

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2015/03/fifth-circuit-affirms-dismissal-of-seamans-manslaughter-charges-against-bp-employees.html

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