BP Managers Possible Manslaughter Charges Filed Against Them


Manslaughter Charges?: Federal Prosecutors Tighten Screws on BP Execs

How fitting that a law rooted in steamboat-era marine regulation is being used to consider criminal charges against not only BP oil rig managers, but top company executives as well. And make no mistake – the “seamans manslaughter” laws may go way back in history, but in recent years they have been used to prosecute everything from human trafficking to ferry crashes.

The original law dates back to a time when thousands of people were dying on steamships, often due to the negligence of crew members or owners ignoring routine safety procedures. In the 1850s, a series of reforms were passed that some argue became the foundation for the Coast Guard’s current marine regulation. In legal circles, the law has become an integral part of efforts to criminalize negligence. Think about the laws creating vehicular manslaughter for negligent operators of cars or trucks.

The law is simple: If your negligence leads to somebody’s death, you have committed manslaughter. Furthermore, in cases of wrongful death, there are damages you can pursue with a lawsuit.

The BP story is going viral and being picked up by national media, but note that most reports are still not naming sources. If you are a prosecutor, the threat of individual criminal prosecution is a powerful bargaining chip for potential plea bargains. Even if a potential defendant does not fear conviction, he has to fear the cost of mounting a robust defense. In many cases, a company cannot pay for defense attorneys. Even the possibility of criminal charges – and seamans manslaughter can carry a 10-year prison term – is enough to sever corporate ties.

The feds are tightening the screws, and we will keep an eye out to see if anything breaks.

For those of us who practice marine law, there is a bit of an ironic twist to this legal strategy. Remember that Transocean led an effort to seek liability limits by citing Civil War-era marine laws. The company argued, in effect, that the Deepwater Horizon was actually a ship at sea. We will see how that plays out, but it will be interesting to see how company executives respond now that a similar argument has them facing prison terms.

Here is a Bloomberg report on the development: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-29/bp-managers-said-to-face-u-s-review-for-manslaughter-charges.html


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