There was an announcement this week by the U.S. Attorney in Portland, Maine that a vessel master, Christopher Hutchinson, was sentenced in U.S. District Court by Judge D. Brock Hornby to four years in prison and three years of supervised release for a finding of guilt under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute (18 U.S.C. § 1115) for causing the death of two crewmen who were then 26 and 15 years old.
According to court records, on November 1, 2014, after smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, Hutchinson took his lobster boat out into a predicted storm with the two other crewmen aboard. After he had ingested oxycodone, the boat capsized. The two crewmen were not wearing personal flotation devices or survival suits. The Coast Guard rescued Hutchinson, who at the time was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The bodies of the two crewmen have never been found and are presumed dead.
In pronouncing sentence, Judge Hornby noted the defendant was the captain of the boat and was responsible for the safety of his crew. Rather than live up to his responsibility, he engaged in risky, reckless behavior that cost the lives of two young men.
This is a unique criminal statute. Under the holding of our own 5th Circuit in the case of U.S. v. O’Keefe, 426 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 2005), “[i]t appears clear from the purpose of the statute, its legislative history and the available case law interpreting it that any degree of negligence is sufficient to meet the culpability threshold.” Unlike what we expect in other criminal statutes, which require intent or gross negligence, this does not. Any breach of duty which causes death of another meets the threshold under this statute.
The most recent effort to apply this statute in Louisiana occurred following the DEEPWATER HORIZON blowout with the deaths of eleven crew from a semi-submersible. In the case of United States v. Kaluza, the 5th Circuit held that the BP engineers aboard the DEEPWATER HORIZON were not members of the crew, nor in operational control of the vessel. As a result, the court affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of 11 counts of the “seaman’s manslaughter” or “ship officer manslaughter” provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1115, against these two well site leaders. While they were the highest ranking BP employees working on the vessel when the blowout of oil, natural gas and mud resulted in the death of eleven men, the Fifth Circuit resolved that neither Kaluza nor Vidrine (as BP employees and not Transocean employees) fell within this definition, and thus agreed that neither fit the category of “other person employed on any steamboat or vessel.”