Fifth Circuit Rules Only a Seaman Can Commit Seaman’s Manslaughter
A recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court serves as a good reminder that criminal statutes say only what they say, and that it is up to the legislature to revise statutes to expand their scope if the legislature cares to do so.
The opinion, United States v. Kaluza, arose from the April 20, 2010, blowout of oil, natural gas and mud at the Macondo well, located on the Outer Continental Shelf in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout resulted in explosions and fires on the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig chartered by the BP petroleum company, that led to the death of eleven men.
Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were “well site leaders” – the highest ranking BP employees working on the rig. Kaluza and Vidrine were indicted in the Eastern District of Louisiana on 23 counts, including 11 counts of “seaman’s manslaughter” or “ship officer manslaughter” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1115. Section 1115 is titled “Misconduct or neglect of ship officers” and provides, in part, that:
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 any person is destroyed, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
On the one hand, unlike the common law definition of manslaughter and the companion statutory definition for general manslaughter found in Section 1112, Section 1115 only requires proof of negligence. On the other hand, the portion of the statute quoted above specifically states that it applies only to two groups of individuals: (1) every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel; and (2) every owner, charterer, inspector, or other public official. The second of these categories clearly did not apply to the two individual defendants, and the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of the Section 1115 charges on the ground that neither of the defendants fit in the first.
Because neither of the defendants was a “captain, engineer [or] pilot” of a vessel, the issue was whether the men fell within the scope of “[e]very . . . other person employed on any . . . vessel.” In making this assessment, the Court of Appeals literally walked through this phrase word by word, indicating the dictionary definition for each one. Having done so, the Court rejected the government’s argument that the plain text of the statute was unambiguous, and encompassed every person employed on the Deepwater Horizon. The Court noted that such a conclusion would make the inclusion of “captain,” “engineer,” and “pilot” superfluous; instead, invoking the principle of ejusdem generis, the Court held that these terms limit the scope of the otherwise open-ended “every . . . other person.”
The Court emphasized that the limiting principle of ejusdem generis has particular force with respect to criminal statutes, so that unsuspecting persons are not ensnared by ambiguous statutory language. Finding that the common attribute of these specific positions was that all are involved in positions of authority responsible for the success of a vessel as a means of transportation on water. Because the defendants were responsible for drilling operations, and not the marine transportation functions of the Deepwater Horizon, they did not fall within this category, and therefore could not be held liable for seaman’s manslaughter.
The Kaluza case is a textbook example of how courts can and should carefully interpret ambiguous statutes so that they may be applied only to those persons and acts to which Congress intended them to apply. The case is certain to provide guidance to trial judges in the Fifth Circuit and elsewhere when similar circumstances arise in other cases.