United States: Key Deepwater Horizon Criminal Charges Dismissed Against Two BP Officials

Last Updated: December 19 2013
Article by Ronald A. Sarachan and Tracy S. Combs

Reining in one of the most aggressive environmental crimes prosecutions, a federal district judge has dismissed half of the manslaughter claims filed against two BP officials in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rober Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, the two top BP officials on board the oil rig at the time of its explosion in April 2010, had been indicted and charged with one misdemeanor count under the Clean Water Act and 22 counts of manslaughter. The dismissal of half the manslaughter counts is an early victory for both men, and could have a significant impact on their trial. The decision could also have significant implications for environmental crimes prosecutions generally.

Defendants Kaluza and Vidrine were employed by BP as "well site leaders" on board the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion on April 20, 2010, responsible for implementing BP's drilling plan and procedures at the Macondo well. A second superseding indictment, filed on November 14, 2012, accused the two men of negligently and grossly negligently failing to maintain control of the well in connection with a negative pressure test intended to ensure safe well operations, by allegedly failing to advise onshore engineers of indications that the well was not secure, failing to account for and investigate abnormal readings during the testing, and incorrectly deeming the negative testing to be successful. The indictment further alleges that the defendants' negligence and gross negligence caused the well blowout and the deaths of 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. The indictment includes 23 counts: 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, 18 U.S.C. § 1112; 11 counts of "Ship Officer's Manslaughter" (commonly called "Seaman's Manslaughter"), 18 U.S.C. § 1115; and one count alleging negligent violations of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1319, 1321. See United States v. Kaluza and Vidrine, Criminal No. 12-265 (E.D. La. Nov. 14, 2012) (superseding indictment). On Tuesday, Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana dismissed the 11 counts of Seaman's Manslaughter against Kaluza and Vidrine.

The court's decision will have a large impact on the subsequent trial of Messrs. Kaluza and Vidrine because Seaman's Manslaughter under Section 1115 required merely a showing of simple negligence, whereas the surviving involuntary manslaughter charges pursuant to Section 1112 require the government to prove that the defendants acted with gross negligence. Now, to convict the defendants of manslaughter, the government will be required to meet the higher gross negligence standard. The defense successfully argued in their pretrial motion that the Seaman's Manslaughter statute does not apply to the two defendants because, while they were responsible for oil drilling aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, they were not responsible for the operations of the rig itself. The Seaman's Manslaughter statute applies to a "captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed." 18 U.S.C. § 1115. The defense argued that "other person employed" encompassed only those with positions of "responsibility for the marine operations, maintenance, and navigation of the vessel," not for the oil drilling activities. After employing principles of statutory construction, and examining the legislative history and case law applying Section 1115 since the enactment of its predecessor statute in 1838, Judge Duval agreed. Dismissing the 11 Seaman's Manslaughter charges, Judge Duval held that, "[w]ithout further indication from Congress evidencing any intent to expand the scope of 'other persons employed,' the Court finds that the defendants as [well site leaders] are not 'other persons employed' under Section 1115."

The Clean Water Act misdemeanor charged against Kaluza and Vidrine is based on oil released from the Macondo Well into the Gulf of Mexico. The misdemeanor has previously been held to require proof of only simple negligence.

It is not unusual for the government to combine environmental charges with traditional criminal charges under Title 18, as it has in this prosecution. The availability of negligence and especially simple negligence as a basis for environmental crimes prosecutions has always raised a spectre of criminalization of a wide range of ordinary, commonplace environmental violations. Generally, however, the government has brought negligence charges only very sparingly and in certain specific categories of cases, such as cases of extreme harm, such as the Exxon Valdez and now the Deepwater Horizon cases. See Steven Solow & Ronald Sarachan, "Criminal Negligence Prosecutions Under the Federal Clean Water Act: A Statistical Analysis and an Evaluation of the Impact of Hanousek and Hong," 32 ELR 11153 (Oct. 2002). What makes the Kaluza and Vidrine prosecution unusual is how very far the government has reached in order to bring the charges, attempting an entirely novel expansion of a traditional criminal statute, here the Seaman's Manslaughter statute, and putting aside very serious issues of causation and other issues. It remains to be seen if this is a precedent for a more aggressive approach to environmental crimes prosecutions generally or merely an exception made for a case of unparalleled environmental harm.

Indeed, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil spill has been called the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. In January 2013, BP pled guilty to 14 criminal counts, including felony manslaughter, and paid $4.5 billion in fines. In addition to Messrs. Kaluza and Vidrine, the Justice Department is also pursuing individual criminal charges against BP employees Kurt Mix, an engineer who worked on BP's attempts to stop the spill and who is currently on trial in federal court in New Orleans, and David Rainey, a former executive in charge of oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, whose trial is scheduled for March 2014. Kaluza's and Vidrine's trial is set for June 2, 2014.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.