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BP's Macondo Supervisors Denied Bid to Drop Involuntary Manslaughter Charges

Two BP plc employees seeking to have involuntary manslaughter charges related to the Macondo well blowout were denied their motions by a Louisiana court on Monday.

Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine face the criminal charges after 11 men were killed on the Deepwater Horizon platform, which was servicing the well when it experienced a blowout in April 2010. The two men were the highest-ranking BP supervisors aboard the doomed drilling rig.

The men originally were charged with 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 11 counts of ship officer manslaughter; the ship officer charges were dismissed in December (see Daily GPI, Dec. 12, 2013). They also face one count each for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. The indictments were issued in late 2012 by the U.S. Department of Justice's Deepwater Horizon Task Force (see Daily GPI, Nov. 16, 2012). On the day the indictments issued, BP agreed to pay $4 billion in penalties and plead guilty to 14 criminal counts.

The defendants wanted the rest of the involuntary manslaughter charges dismissed because they asserted that the underlying criminal statutes were unconstitutionally vague and lacked "a clear 'standard of care' that the defendants allegedly violated..." Kaluza and Vidrine had knowledge of problems with the well before the explosion, the government has contended.

Under law, "involuntary manslaughter" requires proof that a defendant acted "with gross negligence, meaning a wanton or reckless disregard for human life, and [had] knowledge that his or her conduct was a threat to life of another or knowledge of such circumstances as could reasonably have enabled the defendant to foresee the peril to which his or her act might subject another."

"Taking the facts as alleged in the indictment as true, it is difficult to find that any person would not be apprised that general negligent conduct, much less grossly negligent conduct, in this matter would not be sanctioned," wrote U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., writing for the Eastern Court of Louisiana.

"As alleged in the indictment, deepwater drilling is by nature a dangerous undertaking, fraught with the risk of introduction gases and fluids that may enter the well and cause explosions on board the deepwater drilling rig..."

The indictment claims that the men failed to properly administer "negative testing," which is meant to contain any risk gases and fluids entering the well and they failed to contact engineers onshore to report an abnormal reading from the negative testing.

"Provided that the government is able to prove that the defendants' actions caused the blowout that caused the 11 deaths on the Deepwater Horizon, the facts as alleged are sufficient to conclude that an ordinary person would reasonably understand that the improper administration of the negative testing and actions surrounding such administration of the test in light of the inherent danger in deepwater drilling would subject one to criminal sanctions."

The defendants also "assume that, in order to be negligent or grossly negligent, an external standard of care must exist," wrote Duval. "While professional malpractice claims often rely on exactly this type of standard -- typically established by expert testimony -- this is not such a case."

The "statutes at hand are criminal statutes with criminal penalties that employ standards of ordinary negligence or gross negligence." Regarding "vagueness, negligent and grossly negligent conduct," Duval said there is a "clear standard for enforcement" and "unquestionably appropriate for the jury's consideration."

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