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 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.
Continue reading “Seaman’s Manslaughter: An Arcane Statute Turned Present-Day Enforcement Risk”