March 25, 2015

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses manslaughter charges in
high profile admiralty case

Judges for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the
decision of the District Court in dropping Seaman’s Manslaughter
Statute charges against two BP supervisors. This maritime law
dating back to the 19th century governs criminal penalties (fines,
up to a 10 year prison sentence, or both) in the event of loss of
life from a wrongful act. “Captains, engineers, pilots or other
persons” and can be prosecuted for misconduct, negligence or
inattention to their duties. The legislation also provides that
“owners, inspectors, charters and public officers” can be
prosecuted for fraud, neglect, misconduct, connivance or
violation of law. See 18 U.S.C. § 1115.

See Wikipedia Entry on this law that references Tim’s
authoritative text on the subject of
seaman's manslaughter.

In the 5th Circuit Federal Appeals Court decision, the judges
determined that the two supervisors were not in charge of
operations and navigation in the context of the statute.        (IN
THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT,
No. 14-30122, Fifth Circuit, FILED March 11, 2015, United States of
America, Plaintiff - Appellant v. Robert Kaluza; Donald Vidrine,
Defendants - Appellees; Appeals from the United States District
Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.)

Excerpts from the decision include the following conclusions of
the federal judges presiding over the maritime lawsuit…

A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Louisiana returned
a 23-count superseding indictment charging defendants with 11
counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
1112 (Counts 1-11); 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1115 (Counts 12-22); and 1 count of
negligent discharge under the Clean Water Act in violation of 33 U.
S.C. §§ 1319(c)(1)(A) and 1321(b)(3) (Count 23).

    Defendants filed motions to dismiss based on several
theories. With regard to Counts 12-22 (seaman’s manslaughter),
they first argued that the Deepwater Horizon was outside the
territorial jurisdiction of the United States, and that § 1115 does
not apply extraterritorially. 5 Second, defendants argued that
Counts 12-22 did not charge an offense—that   they   were   not   
persons covered under 18 U.S.C. § 1115. Defendants also moved
to dismiss all counts,

    5 Defendants also moved to dismiss Counts 1-11 (involuntary
manslaughter), arguing that the Deepwater Horizon was outside
the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United
States and thus that § 1112 did not apply on the rig by its terms.
See § 1112(b).
                                           
“ …According to the government, there is no ambiguity here in
two ways. First, there is no ambiguity in the plain text . Second,
even if there were ambiguity in the plain
text , there is no ambiguity left after the application of ejusdem
generis. See generally United States v. Oba, 317 F. App’x. 698 (9th
Cir. 2009) (captain); O’Keefe II, 426 F.3d   274 (captain);  United
States v. Thurston , 362 F.3d 1319 (11th Cir. 2004) (chief officer);  
United States v. Hilger, 867 F.2d 566 (9th Cir. 1989) (captain);  
Hoopengarner v. United States, 270 F.2d 465 (6th Cir. 1959)
(speedboat owner and operator )…  “

Therefore, the district court erred in applying the rule of lenity.  
The government misapprehends the district court’s order. The
district court clearly understood that the rule of lenity is only
applied as a last resort. It only held that should there be any
remaining ambiguity even after the application of ejusdem
generis, the rule of lenity dictated that it be resolved in
defendants’ favor.   

Counterarguments in favor of interpreting § 1115 to cover
defendants have purchase. Yet we are left with textual
indeterminacy, as well as the incongruity of applying a statute
originally developed to prevent steamboat explosions and
collisions on inland waters to offshore oil and gas operations - all
approaching a bridge too far. The primary thrust of legislative
effect can bring light to the shadows of uncertainty.

At some point, and we think it here, the doctrine of lenity takes
hold and dismissing this part of the indictment was not error.  

The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.”

(IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH
CIRCUIT, No. 14-30122, Fifth Circuit, FILED March 11, 2015, United
States of America, Plaintiff - Appellant v. Robert Kaluza; Donald
Vidrine, Defendants - Appellees; Appeals from the United States
District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.)



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