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March 12, 2015
  United States v. Kaluza - Fifth Circuit
Headline: Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Some Manslaughter Charges Against BP Employees Stemming from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.

Area of Law: criminal law; maritime law.

Issue Presented: Whether under 18 U.S.C. § 1115 (seaman's manslaughter) "[e]very . . . other person employed on any . . . vessel" includes only those persons responsible for the "marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel."

Brief Summary: On April 20, 2010, a blowout of oil, natural gas, and mud occurred during deepwater drilling operations at the Macondo well, located on the Outer Continental Shelf in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the blowout, the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig chartered by BP plc. (BP) from Transocean Ltd. (Transocean), was attached to the Macondo well. Eleven men died from the resulting explosions and fires on the Deepwater Horizon. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine (Defendants) were "well site leaders," the highest-ranking BP employees working on the rig, and their duties were to direct the drill crew and contractors in their work while maintaining regular contact with the BP engineers on shore. The Defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on twenty-three counts, including eleven counts of seaman's manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1115 (Counts 12-22). That statute imposes liability on "[e]very captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel" who causes a death through misconduct or negligence. The district court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss counts 12-22 for failure to charge an offense because the Defendants did not fit within the category of persons potentially liable under the statute. The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit agreed that the Defendants did not fall within the meaning of the phrase "[e]very . . . other person employed on any . . . vessel," and it accordingly affirmed the district court.

Extended Summary: On April 20, 2010, a blowout of oil, natural gas, and mud occurred during deepwater drilling operations at the Macondo well, located on the Outer Continental Shelf in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the blowout, the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig chartered by BP plc. (BP) from Transocean Ltd. (Transocean), was attached to the Macondo well. Eleven men died from the resulting explosions and fires on the Deepwater Horizon. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine (Defendants) were "well site leaders," the highest-ranking BP employees working on the rig, and their duties were to direct the drill crew and contractors in their work while maintaining regular contact with the BP engineers on shore. The Defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on twenty-three counts: eleven counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1112 (Counts 1-11); eleven counts of seaman's manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1115 (Counts 12-22); and one 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).

18 U.S.C. § 1115, seaman's manslaughter, holds liable "[e]very captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel" who causes a death through misconduct or negligence. The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss counts 12-22 for failure to charge an offense because neither defendant fell within the meaning of "[e]very . . . other person employed on any . . . vessel." The district court granted the Defendants' motion. It concluded that the seaman's manslaughter statute was ambiguous and applied the principle of ejusdem generis to define the key phrase. Ejusdem generis instructs that where general words follow an enumeration of specific terms, the general words are read to apply only to other items like those specifically enumerated. The district court 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." Since Defendants were not such persons, they did not fall within the ambit of the statute. The government appealed this determination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. (The other criminal counts were not at issue in the appeal.)

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of counts 12-22. The Court held that the plain text of the seaman's manslaughter statute is ambiguous, and, based on the canons of statutory interpretation, the text and context of § 1115, legislative history and purpose, case law, and the doctrine of lenity, the statute includes only those persons responsible for the "marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel." The Fifth Circuit held that the Defendants were engineers solely responsible for drilling and were not persons responsible for the "marine operations, maintenance, or navigation of the vessel." Therefore the Defendants were not included in "[e]very . . . other person employed on any . . . vessel."

For the full opinion, please see:
http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op...ub/14/14-30122-CR0.pdf.

Panel: Circuit Judges Higginbotham, Jones, and Prado

Argument Date: 7/8/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 3/11/2015

Docket Number: No. 14-30122

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kirsty Davis

Counsel: Sangita Katikineni Rao, Department of Justice, for Plaintiff-Appellant United States of America; Shaun G. Clarke, Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, L.L.P., for Defendant-Appellee Kaluza; Robert N. Habans, Jr., Habans & Carriere, for Defendant-Appellee Vidrine.

Author of Opinion: Judge Higginbotham

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 03/12/2015 10:31 PM     5th Circuit  

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