The Seaman’s Manslaughter Act, in its current form, is found at 18 U.S.C. § 1115, under the title “Misconduct or Neglect of Ship Officers.” The statute provides that
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 ten years, or both.
18 U.S.C. § 1115.
This statute “criminalizes the misconduct or negligence of a ship’s officers that results in the death of another and for corporate management that knowingly and willfully causes or allows the misconduct or negligence of a ship’s officers that result in the death of a person.” Hilder, Philip H.; Paul L. Creech. “Seaman's Manslaughter: The Criminalization of Death by Negligence.”
As opposed to the common law definition of manslaughter and the federal statutory definition of manslaughter found at Section 1112 of the U.S. Criminal Code, the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act does not require any specific mens rea, but rather, as set forth above, simply requires a degree of negligence on the part of the culpable party.
While the culpability standard is clearly more expansive than that of other manslaughter statutes, the category of individuals covered by this statute is substantially narrower. As can be seen from the statutory language above, there are three categories of individuals who can be prosecuted under this statute:
(1) Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel,
(2) Every owner, charterer, inspector, or other public officer, and
(3) 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.
The statute does not include any jurisdictional language, but the history of the drafting, enactment, and revision of this statute indicates that this legislation covers homicides committed anywhere within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts. See, e.g., U.S. v. Allied Towing Corp., 602 F.2d 612 (4th Cir. 1979).
As mentioned above, this statute was recently the focus of an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals arising out of the deaths that occurred in an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010. That decision is United States v. Kaluza, 780 F.3d 647 (5th Cir. 2015).
The defendants in this case, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, were “well site leaders” employed by BP. Defendants Kaluza and Vidrine were the highest ranking BP employees on the rig at the time of the explosion. They were indicted by a federal grand jury on 23 counts, including 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter. After motion practice, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana dismissed these charges, finding that neither defendant was covered under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit provided a detailed history of the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act, a comprehensive explanation of the underlying facts, and a well-reasoned application of the statute to the facts, ultimately affirming the holdings of the district court.
The Fifth Circuit explained that, on the Deepwater Horizon:
Well site leaders were responsible for conducting and assessing the validity of “negative pressure testing” or “negative 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. During the negative testing, the well was monitored for pressure increases and fluid flows. Either condition would indicate that the well was not secure and that oil and natural gas could be entering the well. An uncontrolled influx of fluids and gas from the surrounding rock into the well—known as a “kick”—could cause a catastrophic blowout up the well and onto the rig with the potential for ignition, explosions, casualties, death, and environmental damage. Competent negative testing was critical.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon crew was engaged in procedures to temporarily abandon the Macondo well, sealing it with cement so that a different vessel could later retrieve the oil and natural gas reserves. As part of this procedure, they attempted to perform negative tests multiple times to assess whether the well was properly sealed. Both defendants participated in the negative testing. The indictment alleges that Defendants negligently or grossly negligently:
failed to phone engineers onshore to advise them during the negative testing of the multiple indications that the well was not secure; failed to adequately account for the abnormal readings during the testing; accepted a nonsensical explanation for the abnormal readings, again without calling engineers onshore to consult; eventually decided to stop investigating the abnormal readings any further; and deemed the negative testing a success, which caused displacement of the well to proceed and blowout of the well to later occur.
After the failed negative testing, the well blew out within hours, the vessel exploded, eleven men died, and others were severely injured.
Kaluza, 780 F.3d at 652–53.
In its review of this case, the Fifth Circuit outlined the statutory language provided above, concluding that: “Neither the second category (the owner provision) nor the third category (the corporate officer provision) is at issue; it is only the first category with which we are concerned. Specifically, the phrase “[e]very ... other person employed on any ... vessel” is the only relevant one because Defendants are not captains, engineers, or pilots ….” Kaluza, 780 F.3d at 657.
The government argued on appeal that the term “[e]very ... other person employed on any ... vessel” included defendants.
Defendants responded, arguing instead that the application of ejusdem generis, United States v. Kaluza, 780 F.3d 647, 669, fn. 29 (5th Cir. 2015), informed that the government’s argument would cause the included terms “captain, engineer, [and] pilot” to be superfluous. In essence, defendant’s argued that it would make no sense for the legislature to have included these specific employment titles if all employees on any particular vessel were included.
The Fifth Circuit found both interpretations of the statute to be reasonable. As such there was ambiguity in the statutory language, which thereby justified the application of ejusdem generis to determine whether defendants were covered by this statute.
The Fifth Circuit noted that the district court had considered what “common attribute” or “class of persons” the statutory phrase implied, and
concluded that in the context of the phrase, the terms “captain,” “engineer,” and “pilot” suggested a class of persons dealing with the operation and navigation of the vessel. Thus “every ... other person” includes only those persons responsible for the “marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel.” As a result, Defendants were excluded.
Kaluza, 780 F.3d at 661 (emphasis added). Responding to this conclusion from the district court, the government asserted that even if there was no error in applying ejusdem generis to this case, the district court applied the principle incorrectly. The government insisted that the common attributes among the terms “captain,” “engineer,” and “pilot,” included these employees’ service to a vessel, and these employees’ substantial responsibility for the safety of the vessel. Attributes that applied equally to the defendants in their role of well site leaders.
The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument. Instead, it sided with the defendants finding that the district court’s interpretation was proper. “The three specific words define a general class of people, specifically those involved in the ‘marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel.’ Since Defendants were not such persons, they did not fall within the ambit of the statute.” Kaluza, 780 F.3d at 657.
The Fifth Circuit provided further support for its conclusion “by examining the meaning of the terms ‘captain,’ ‘engineer,’ and ‘pilot’”:
As relevant here, “Captain” is defined as “[t]he master or commander of a merchant ship or of any kind of vessel.” “Engineer” is defined as “[t]he operator of a steam engine, esp. on board a ship.” “Pilot” is defined as “[a] person who steers or directs the course of a ship; a helmsman or navigator, spec. a qualified coastal navigator taken on board temporarily to steer a ship into or out of a port, through a channel, etc.” All three terms refer to individuals involved in the “marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel.” In other words, all three are persons in positions of authority responsible for the success of a vessel qua vessel, i.e., in its function as something used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.
Kaluza, 780 F.3d at 662.
In conclusion, the Fifth Circuit held that the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act was created to address the dangers of travel by steamboat, and that only those persons responsible for that travel should be held liable under the statute. Because the defendants here were not responsible for the travel of the Deepwater Horizon, they did not fall within the ambit of the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act and the ruling of the district court dismissing those claims was affirmed.
This represents an important development in the application of this centuries-old statute. At least in the Fifth Circuit, employees who are not engaged in marine operations, maintenance, or the navigation of a vessel cannot be held liable under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act. It remains to be seen how other courts might rule on this issue.
Nicholas J. Cenac is an associate with Degan, Blachard & Nash in New Orleans, Louisiana.