BP’s top two supervisors onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig when it caught fire and exploded in 2010 will not face criminal charges under an obscure statute historically reserved for prosecuting a captain or someone at the helm of a ship, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
The panel affirmed a lower court judge’s 2013 ruling.
The men, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, still face other charges.
They are among five mostly rank-and-file employees who were charged in connection with the disaster, which killed 11 men and caused millions of barrels of crude oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico.
In a 2012 federal indictment, Kaluza and Vidrine were charged with misinterpreting a key safety test and ignoring clear signs that BP’s Macondo well was in danger. A grand jury charged them with 11 counts apiece of seaman’s manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, along with violating the federal Clean Water Act. They still face the latter two charges.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. dismissed the seaman’s manslaughter charges in 2013, ruling the law is meant to be applied to someone operating and navigating a vessel, rather than supervisors of a drilling operation, and did not apply to them.
Federal prosecutors appealed Duval’s ruling, but in a 35-page decision issued Wednesday, Judges Patrick Higginbotham, Edith Jones and Edward Prado agreed with Duval, finding that the men’s responsibilities on the rig did not constitute the “marine operations, maintenance, and navigation” of a ship.
The seaman’s manslaughter statute — which has never been applied to supervisors onboard on a drilling rig — requires a lower burden of proof to show negligence.
There’s little dispute that the misinterpreted pressure test had disastrous consequences.
“All of the experts — even BP’s — agree that Vidrine’s interpretation was erroneous and that the test could not be deemed successful,” U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the multiphase oil spill litigation, said last year. Barbier ruled that BP had acted with “gross negligence” for its part in the disaster, and in the process he laid much of the blame on the two men.
Each man faces a maximum of eight years for each count of involuntary manslaughter and up to a year in prison on a count of violating the Clean Water Act.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.