The U.S. government may not pursue charges against two former BP plc supervisors under a 177-year-old federal statute covering seaman's manslaughter for their roles in the Macondo well blowout in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 11 men, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. However, they still face 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, the highest-ranking BP supervisors aboard the doomed Deepwater Horizon platform, originally were charged with 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 11 counts of ship officer, or seaman's, manslaughter (see Daily GPI, Nov. 16, 2012). They also were charged with one count each for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act [USA v. Robert Kaluza; Donald Vidrine, No. 14-30122].
The seaman's manslaughter charges had been dismissed more than year ago by a Louisiana district court (see Daily GPI, Dec. 12, 2013). However, federal prosecutors appealed.
The Fifth Circuit panel affirmed the district court's ruling and said the two men had responsibilities on the drilling platform that did not constitute "marine operations, maintenance and navigation" of a ship and therefore, the law did not apply. The 1838 statute was enacted to provide better safety for passengers aboard ships. The statute demands caution by "every captain, engineer, pilot or other person employed on any vessel," with criminal liability if fatalities were to result as a lapse of judgment. The statute was designed to punish a corporation's captains, engineers and pilots of vessels, not supervisors of a drilling operation, the panel said.
Kaluza and Vidrine still face 11 involuntary manslaughter charges (see Daily GPI, Jan. 28, 2014). The men lost on appeal last year after claiming the underlying criminal statutes were unconstitutionally vague and lacked "a clear 'standard of care'" that they allegedly violated. Prosecutors contend the two men had knowledge of problems concerning the Macondo well before the blowout destroyed the rig.