Criminal Charges from Oil Spill for BP Employees?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on November 09, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Will someone go to jail over the BP oil spill? The Department of Justice seems to be putting the criminal investigation over the spill into high gear. A security zone has been created around the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The DOJ has set up office space near the courthouse in New Orleans. Lawyers are reviewing documents. Will charges follow?

Many resources, as well as time and attention from those high up in the department are focused on criminal and civil charges that may now flow from the catastrophe that was the BP oil spill, reports NPR. A federal judge recently confirmed the Justice Department has until October of 2011 to keep the security zone around the BP rig free of all inference to aid their investigation.

But will there be criminal charges for the Gulf disaster? David Uhlmann, a former environmental crimes prosecutor who now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School, tells NPR criminal charges against BP and Transocean are all but certain. Charges against individuals, however, are another story altogether.

In the past, according to Jane Barrett, a former prosecutor now teaching at the University of Maryland, it has been rare for ecological disasters to result in criminal charges against individuals. Take the Exxon Valdez spill, Barrett told NPR. The DOJ never even charged the captain of the Valdez with any criminal wrongdoing. In the BP spill case, Barrett says, it will be hard to prove any one employee knew enough about the safety problems to be charged with a crime.

There is an old law, reports NPR, that might be of help to the Department of Justice. An act called the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute, which dates from 1800's, allows the government to bring criminal charges if it can prove workers onboard a vessel, like the oil rig, died because of neglect from the ship captain or ship owner. The original act was passed in 1838, in response to the many deaths on the new steamboats making their way up and down the rivers of the United States.

The statute now is being used as a tool in more recent marine disasters. According to, it was used in the 2003 Staten Island Ferry accident to secure criminal charges against the pilot and one official on shore.

In the BP oil spill case, eleven men died in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. NPR reports the DOJ is keeping the life rafts used by the workers fleeing the fire after the explosion as evidence. According to NPR, some rig managers have already invoked their rights under the 5th Amendment.

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