According to news reports yesterday, the USDOJ is considering manslaughter charges in the Gulf spill, along with possible perjury charges. I got to wondering how the federal government would bring manslaughter charges, which are typically state law charges, against the companies. I posed the question to the American Bar Association’s Environmental Enforcement and Crimes Committee. The answers I got back were that the government could bring a manslaughter charge under the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13 (Laws of States adopted for areas within Federal jurisdiction) or under 18 U.S.C. § 1115 Misconduct or Neglect of Ship Officers.
In the case of the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13, jurisdiction may be an issue (i.e. where exactly was the Deepwater Horizon mobile off-shore drilling unit located). A case may be easier to make under 18 U.S.C. § 1115 Misconduct or Neglect of Ship Officers. Under that statute:
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 (emphasis added). Here the question will be was the Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit a vessel. The answer is that it probably is a “vessel” for purposes of the statute. The law defines a mobile off-shore drilling unit as “a vessel capable of engaging in drilling operations for the exploration or exploitation of subsea resources." 46 USC 2101(15a). The Coast Guard also inspects and regulates mobile off-shore drilling unit as vessels. Further, I am told, the mobile off-shore drilling unit is staffed similarly to how a vessel is crewed.
What may also be of interest (but maybe only to the defense team) is the source of the story, attributed to “people familiar with the inquiry” who spoke “on condition of anonymity about the ongoing investigation.” The USDOJ formally declined to comment. The USDOJ recently changed its staffing on this investigation so it could better coordinate the civil and criminal investigations.
A special thanks to the ABA SEER EECC listserv for the research assist!!
As always, feel free to contact me via e-mail at email@example.com.