Anyone following legal developments surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil explosion and spill knows how those responsible have used every maneuver in the book to try to duck blame. By categorizing the oil rig as a “vessel,” they have tried skirt all kinds of responsibility. For example, on June 3 2010, we wrote,
In an legal maneuver the U.S. Justice Department yesterday called “simply unconscionable,” Transocean has asked a federal judge to apply a 159-year-old law to cap its liability at $27 million – essentially the costs of the sunken rig. AP reports, “If successful, Transocean Ltd. would be left with as much as $533 million in insurance money [which is] almost enough to cover the revenue the company was expecting from a three-year contract with BP PLC.”
Transocean had pulled out of its pocket the Limitation of Liability Act, a primeval law that allows vessel owners to limit their liability to the post-voyage value of the vessel - even though this law was never intended to limit a company’s liability for death and injury to workers. Nine of the 11 workers killed in the explosion worked for Transocean.
Keith Jones, whose 28-year-old son Gordon was one of those killed that day (see Keith below) has been on a painful quest to try to change two other archaic laws, the Death on the High Seas Act and Jones Act, both of which cover deaths on the high seas and both of which severely limit compensation to families of those killed. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Keith Jones and others, these laws (on the books since 1920) were almost amended in Congress. But at the end of 2010, U.S. Sen. James DeMint, (R-S.C.), blocked the Senate from voting on it as a gift to the cruise line and shipping industries, which were heavily lobbying against the families’ interests.
But now, this vessel characterization has come back to bite them, big time. BP has said it will plead guilty to 11 manslaughter charges for these deaths. Corporate manslaughter is pretty rare but turns out, less rare when vessels are involved! That’s thanks to another strange maritime law called the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. As described by University of Michigan law professor David Uhlmann, formerly of the Environmental Crimes Section at DOJ, who spoke to the Corporate Crime Reporter last year, the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, “[is] a very old statute, which predates the environmental laws that were violated in this case.… Under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, it is a crime if a worker dies aboard a vessel because of negligence or inattention to duties by the master of the vessel or the owner of the vessel. …It’s a felony violation that could result in up to ten years in prison and significant fines.”
Incredible that it took this long for these 11 families to get some kind of justice. But as satisfying as this may be, it’s shameful that families are still victimized by these rest of these statutes.
UPDATE: Attorney General Eric Holder announced that "BP has agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal counts, including manslaughter, and will pay $4 billion over five years in a settlement.... [A] separate 23-count criminal indictment — including charges of seaman’s and involuntary manslaughter — against the two top-ranking BP supervisors on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig where a blowout occurred April 20, 2010, sinking the rig and killing 11 workers."