Manslaughter Charges?: Federal Prosecutors Tighten Screws on BP Execs


How fitting that a law rooted in steamboat-era marine regulation is being used to consider criminal charges against not only BP oil rig managers, but top company executives as well. And make no mistake – the “seaman’s manslaughter” laws may go way back in history, but in recent years they have been used to prosecute everything from human trafficking to ferry crashes.

The original law dates back to a time when thousands of people were dying on steamships, often due to negligence of crew members or owners ignoring routine safety procedures. In the 1850s, a series of reforms were passed that some argue became the foundation for the Coast Guard’s current marine regulation. In legal circles, the law has become an integral part of efforts to “criminalize negligence.” Think about the laws creating “vehicular manslaughter” for negligent operators of cars or trucks.

The law is simple: If your negligence leads to somebody’s death, you’ve committed manslaughter.

The BP story is going viral and being picked up by national media, but note that most reports are still not naming sources. If you’re a prosecutor, the threat of individual criminal prosecution is a powerful bargaining chip for potential plea bargains. Even if a potential defendant does not fear conviction, he has to fear the cost of mounting a robust defense. In many cases, a company can’t pay for defense attorneys. Even the possibility of criminal charges – and seaman’s manslaughter can carry a 10-year prison term – is enough to sever corporate ties.

The feds are tightening the screws, and we’ll keep an eye out to see if anything breaks.

For those of us who practice marine law, there’s a bit of an ironic twist to this legal strategy. Remember that Transocean led an effort to seek liability limits by citing Civil War-era marine laws. The company argued, in effect, that the Deepwater Horizon was actually a ship at sea. We’ll see how that plays out, but it will be interesting to see how company executives respond now that a similar argument has them facing prison terms.

Here’s a Bloomberg report on the development:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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