Mr. Clarke is lead counsel for Robert Kaluza, a BP “well site leader” aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig on April 20, 2010, when an explosion killed 11 workers and led to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The government brought federal criminal charges against Mr. Kaluza in New Orleans: 11 counts alleging gross negligent manslaughter; 11 counts alleging simple negligent manslaughter; and 1 count alleging negligent water pollution.
The district court dismissed the 11 simple negligent manslaughter counts because the statute — 18 U.S.C. section 1115, sometimes called seaman’s manslaughter — applies only to those working in marine operations (e.g. a captain, pilot, engineer, or other person similarly responsible for marine navigation, maintenance, or operation); not to those working in drilling operations (like the defendant well site leaders).
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed, and in doing so, applied canons of statutory interpretation very recently approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in Yates v. United States.
The decision is significant for a few reasons. First, generally, few cases in recent history have received national attention approaching that of the Deepwater Horizon accident. Second, specifically in this case, the ruling means that at trial the government must meet a much higher gross negligence standard for its manslaughter charges. Finally, for the offshore industry, the decision clarifies the reach of a serious criminal statute for thousands of workers in drilling operations offshore (and their employers).