In an earlier blog post, I addressed some of the legal issues related to civil litigation stemming from the sinking of the sightseeing vessel Stretch Duck 07 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., last year.
The incident, which claimed the lives of 17 people, has been blamed on the vessel operator’s negligent actions in responding to adverse weather and sea conditions. Multiple lawsuits have been filed by those who were injured or lost loved ones. And while the civil suits were completely expected, the duck boat tragedy has developed a new legal twist. The U.S. Department of Justice has commenced criminal prosecution proceedings against some of those involved in the vessel’s operations, and the charges are serious.
The duck boat’s captain was recently indicted by a federal grand jury under the “seaman’s manslaughter” statute. That infrequently used provision of the federal maritime law provides that any person employed on a vessel whose misconduct, negligence or inattention results in the death of another can be criminally prosecuted, with punishment including imprisonment of up to 10 years per count and/or substantial monetary fines.
If the captain pleads “not guilty” as expected to the criminal charges, he could face a trial and potentially imprisonment for life if convicted for each of the 17 deaths.
The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute is not restricted to a captain or other crewmembers of a vessel. A vessel’s owner or charterer, including corporate executives and personnel responsible for the control and management of the operation, equipment and navigation of a vessel, can face similar criminal penalties if they knowingly or willfully caused or allowed “fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct or violation of law” that results in the loss of life from the operation of its vessel.
Maritime casualties often give rise to civil litigation. However, as the duck boat tragedy grimly reminds those involved in the ownership and operation of vessels, harsh criminal consequences may await those whose carelessness results in a vessel-related death.