Seaman’s Manslaughter: An Arcane Statute Turned Present-Day Enforcement Risk

Jeanne M. Grasso and Kierstan L. Carlson

Owners and operators of ships calling on the United States know well that criminal prosecutions are now a regular occurrence in the maritime industry. Most relate to environmental violations and post-incident conduct like false statements and obstruction of justice. Recently, however, prosecutors also have used the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute as an enforcement tool.

The statute allows for federal charges against vessel officers and corporate executives of the vessel owner or charterer if a death results from negligence aboard a vessel. Several high-profile casualties have clearly placed the statute back on the government’s radar and it is now an enforcement risk for passenger and cargo vessels alike.

The Statute

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute criminalizes negligence and inattention to duties by a captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on a vessel. Violations can result in up to 10 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. The statute stems from 19th century laws aimed at preventing deaths from fires on steamboats, which were designed to punish ship’s officers for negligent conduct. A similar focus exists today. Under the statute, vessel officers and shoreside employees may be liable for manslaughter if their negligent conduct causes a fatality. This is a “simple negligence” standard, meaning that the government need not prove the conduct was willful, knowing, or reckless.

However, a heightened, “gross negligence” standard applies for cases against executives of corporate vessel owners or charterers. There, the government must prove that the individual corporate executive: 1) had “control and management of the operation, equipment, or navigation” of the vessel; and 2) “knowingly or willfully caused or allowed” the negligent conduct that resulted in a death. 

Prosecutions through the 2000s

Few Seaman’s Manslaughter cases were brought before the 2000s. The most notable was the General Slocum disaster in 1904, where over 1,000 people died in a vessel fire in New York. The captain, corporate executives, and the vessel inspector were indicted when the investigation revealed serious violations of safety standards and false records covering up the deficiencies. This incident lead to major regulatory change and reform of the predecessor agency to the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the early 2000s, several major casualties revived the statute, including the Staten Island Ferry incident in 2003, where a ferry veered off course and allided with a concrete maintenance pier, killing 11 people and injuring 73 others. The resulting investigation found that: the pilot was taking painkillers, the pilot’s doctor knew about his condition and falsified medical records that were a prerequisite to the pilot’s license; the director of ferry operations knew the ferry was operating in violation of a rule mandating two pilots in the wheelhouse; and the port captain lied to investigators about compliance with the rule. The pilot and director of ferry operations were convicted of manslaughter and the captain and doctor were convicted of making false statements and obstructing justice.

Recent Prosecutions

Recent Seaman’s Manslaughter cases exemplify the statute’s breadth and show that a casualty with fatalities will almost certainly result in a criminal investigation, along with a parallel investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and civil lawsuits.

In the last few years, the government brought charges in two high-profile and tragic passenger vessel casualties: the Stretch Duck 7 duck boat disaster in the Ozarks in 2018, and the P/V Conception dive boat fire in California in 2019.

In the Stretch Duck incident, 17 people died when the vessel sank in a storm on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. The captain was charged with 17 counts of Seaman’s Manslaughter and the indictment alleged that he failed to properly assess weather conditions, failed to act when the bilge alarm sounded, failed to instruct passengers to wear life jackets, and failed to prepare to abandon ship. Superseding indictments charged three corporate managers with the same 17 counts and added 13 counts against all defendants for grossly negligent operation of a vessel. The trial court dismissed the case in late 2020, finding that the lake on which the casualty occurred was not within the general admiralty jurisdiction or the “special maritime jurisdiction” of the United States, a jurisdictional prerequisite for a prosecution under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. The government appealed this decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2020, so the final outcome remains undetermined.

Comparably, in the P/V Conception case, 34 people died when the dive boat caught fire and sank in California. The captain was indicted on 34 counts of Seaman’s Manslaughter in December 2020. The indictment alleged that he failed to have a night watch and conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training. The captain was released on $250,000 bail, but his case remains pending. Thus far, the owning company has not been charged, but it sold off the remainder of the fleet amidst multiple wrongful death lawsuits.

Beyond these passenger vessel cases, the government has brought Seaman’s Manslaughter charges for casualties on other types of commercial vessels, such as fishing charters, parasailing operations, tugs/barges, and cargo ships. Two cases serve as interesting examples: U.S. v. Kaluza, which relates to the Deepwater Horizon incident involving an explosion, fire, and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and U.S. v. Egan Marine Corp., which involved a large explosion on a slurry barge in Chicago in 2005. Although the charges in these cases ultimately were dismissed, the dismissals were based on legal technicalities and the threat of prosecution following such incidents remains very real. 

In Kaluza, Deepwater Horizon well site leaders were indicted because their failure to conduct proper pressure testing led to the explosion that killed 11 people. The defendants appealed and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute did not apply because they were not involved in the marine operation of the vessel. Yet, similar conduct by a chief engineer or comparable shipboard officer would have resulted in criminal charges.

Egan Marine involved a slurry barge explosion that occurred because the master told a deckhand to warm a cargo pump with a propane torch even though open flames were prohibited. The master and the company were convicted of one count of Seaman’s Manslaughter for the deckhand’s death. They appealed and in 2016 the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions because a prior civil suit relating to the same incident had determined that there was not proof that the deckhand was using a propane torch at the time of the explosion.

Conclusion

The government’s increasing willingness to invoke the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute following maritime casualties should serve as a wakeup call for companies to avoid becoming a part of this trend. Today, a marine casualty resulting in a fatality will almost certainly prompt an investigation under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, in addition to any separate investigation by regulatory authorities and private civil lawsuits. This risk underscores the importance of implementing an effective, practical, and verifiable compliance program focused not only on the minimum regulatory requirements, but also the reduction of unnecessary risk.

This article was first published in Maritime Executive on April 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.