Two BP employees will not face criminal charges of seaman’s manslaughter in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and spewed oil for nearly three months into the Gulf of Mexico, an appeals court has ruled.

The seaman’s manslaughter statute that traces its origin to an 1838 act dealing with steamboat safety does not apply to well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, the highest ranking BP employees that were working on the rig, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, New Orleans, concluded in a March 11 ruling.

 “The statute was enacted to address the dangers of travel by steamboat, and it is persons responsible for that travel that should be held liable under the statute,” the court said. “Defendants were not responsible for the travel of the Deepwater Horizon.”

The two, who were on the rig when it exploded, were indicted on 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and one count of negligent discharge under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Well site leaders, as the court noted, were responsible for the validity of negative pressure testing, “a process which assessed whether the cement pumped to the bottom of the well had hardened, thus forming an effective barrier between the well and the oil and gas reservoir.”

A lower court granted their motion to dismiss the seaman’s manslaughter charges because neither fell within the meaning of the statute. It concluded the wording “every . . . other person” means only those responsible for the “marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel.” (See box) The government appealed, but the appeals court agreed with the lower court.

The two also wanted to dismiss the charges because they said the rig was outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. But the district court denied the motion, finding that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) “extends federal law and political jurisdiction” to the rig. The appeals court did not rule on those arguments.

Another high-profile case involving the seaman’s manslaughter charge was the Oct. 15, 2003, Staten Island Ferry crash.

New York City’s director of ferry operations – the highest ranked official of five people indicted in that accident – and the assistant captain, who was in the pilothouse and lost consciousness as the Andrew J. Barberi approached the pier, both got jail time after pleading guilty to the charge. Eleven of the 1,500 passengers died, and 70 were injured.

In other BP-related litigation, the government on Friday appealed a judge’s ruling on the amount of oil spilled – a key factor in determining BP’s fine.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, New Orleans, in January determined that the largest spill in U.S. history unleashed 3.19 million bbls. of oil, which could mean a fine of $13.7 billion. The government claimed a discharge of 4.19 million bbls., which would have meant in a fine of about $18 billion. BP’s estimate was 2.45 million bbl., court documents show.

Judge Barbier earlier found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct in the accident. CWA penalties of $1,100 bbl. can rise to $4,300 bbl. when the spill results from gross negligence. But the judge said BP was not grossly negligent in its response to the spill.

The company has appealed the gross negligence finding, has taken a $43.5 billion pre-tax charge for the spill and set aside $3.5 billion for CWA penalties.



The Seaman's Manslaughter statute -- Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 1115 -- states:

Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed, and every owner, charterer, inspector, or other public officer, through whose fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law the life of any person is destroyed, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

When the owner or charterer of any steamboat or vessel is a corporation, any executive officer of such corporation, for the time being actually charged with the control and management of the operation, equipment, or navigation of such steamboat or vessel,  who has knowingly and willfully caused or allowed such fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law, by which the life of any person is destroyed, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

Source: U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Counsel ( and the appeals court ruling.