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Manslaughter Charges Dropped for Two BP Employees

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

By The Maritime Executive 03-12-2015 08:42:36

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that two former BP supervisors onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig will not face criminal charges of seaman’s manslaughter. The Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 men and spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, the two men in the Wednesday ruling, were among five of the BP employees charged in relation to the case. Kaluza and Vildrine were the two highest-ranking supervisors aboard the Horizon at the time of the explosion.

The seaman’s manslaughter charges were dropped under a historical statute enacted in 1838 to provide better safety for passengers aboard ships by demanding the utmost caution in the operations of a vessel, with criminal liability if fatalities resulted as a lapse of judgment. The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute states that “every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence or inattention to his duties, [causes] the life of any person [to be] destroyed, every owner or charterer [of the vessel] shall be fined… or imprisoned not more than ten years.” The statute goes on to specify the implications if the owner or charterer of the vessel is a corporation, in which case “any executive officer of such corporation… charged with control and management of the operation, equipment, and navigation, who has knowingly and willfully caused or allowed such fraud, neglect, misconduct or violation of life” will be subject to a fine and/or imprisonment for the manslaughter(s).

However, the statute was designed for the punishment of the corporation’s captains, engineers and pilots of the vessels, not the supervisors of a drilling operation, which was the case in the BP disaster.

The three-judge panel affirmed a district court’s 2013 ruling, stating that the supervisors’ role on the Deepwater Horizon did not constitute the 1838 statute’s requirement of “marine operations, maintenance and navigation” of a vessel and thus could not be charged with seaman’s manslaughter. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. had similarly dismissed the manslaughter charges on the basis that the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute applied to captains and others operating and navigating a ship as opposed to those in charge of a drilling project.

Kaluza and Vidrine were charged in a 2012 federal indictment with misreading an imperative safety test and neglecting signals that denoted the danger that BP’s Macondo well was in. The two men were charged with 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter each, involuntary manslaughter and violating the Clean Water Act.

Kaluza and Vidrine still face the involuntary manslaughter and Clean Water Act violation charges and could serve up to eight years in prison for each count of involuntary manslaughter and a maximum of one year for the Clean Water Act violation.

BP has paid more than $42 billion in charges for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company is still awaiting a separate ruling for its fines under the Clean Water Act from a New Orleans federal judge, which is expected to be ruled on later this year.