BP Employees Can't Be Charged for Deepwater Horizon Deaths: 5th Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 18, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Two high-ranking BP employees working on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform when it exploded on April 20, 2010, can't be charged with 23 counts of "seaman's manslaughter," the Fifth Circuit ruled last week.

The issue here is statutory interpretation, and much like the Supreme Court's recent decision that a fish is not a "record," the Fifth Circuit decided that a BP employee is not an "other person" within the meaning of the statute.

Hey, Sailor

Robert Koluza and Donald Vidrine were charged with violations of 18 USC Section 1115, which punishes negligence by a "captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel" if that negligence results in someone's death. A federal jury in Louisiana indicted Koluza and Vidrine under the statute, but a district court dismissed the charges because neither one of them fell within the meaning of the statute. Koluza and Vidrine made some of the decisions that led to the explosion.

Deepwater Horizon was owned by a company called Transocean. The "marine crew" -- that is, the crew that handled the operations relating to the rig as a floating ship-type-thing -- was employed by Transocean. Koluza and Vidrine were "well site leaders" employed by BP, which held the lease to drill for oil.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The only truly appealable issue in this case was whether Koluza and Vidrine qualified as an "other person," given that they clearly weren't captains, engineers, or pilots of the Deepwater Horizon. They claimed the statute was ambiguous, as the statute mentions both engineers, captains, and "other person[s]." If those others are, literally, every person on the ship, then why single out captains, engineers, and pilots?

The Fifth Circuit disagreed: "On the one hand, the phrase could be read to include everyone employed on the vessel. On the other hand, because such a reading would render certain terms superfluous, the phrase could be read to include a smaller group of those employed on the vessel."

With the statute now officially ambiguous, the court had to figure out what an "other person" is. As Justice Ginsburg did in Yates v. United States, the Fifth Circuit applied the statutory interpretation doctrine of esjudem generis to this list of ship employees. In a non-exhaustive list containing some examples, the members of the catch-all phrase have to have something in common with the exemplars.

The district court said that the common attribute between the three examples was that they were all people responsible for the "marine operations" of a ship. The Fifth Circuit agreed, and faulted the government's more expansive "in service of the vessel" definition: "For instance, a nanny employed by the vessel operator would fall under this definition. Congress did not intend to bring such a person within the scope of the statute."

With the more limited definition in mind, the Fifth Circuit also agreed that Koluza and Vidrine couldn't be liable under Section 1115 because, though they were responsible for the oil drilling aspect of Deepwater Horizon, they weren't responsible for its "transportation-related duties."

Just as a fish is not a record, a BP employee on an oil rig isn't one of the oil rig's officers.

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