BP Rig Supervisors Must Face Manslaughter Charges For Deepwater Horizon Deaths, Judge Rules

The Deepwater Horizon rig one day after it exploded April 21, 2010 CREDIT: Herbert/AP
The Deepwater Horizon rig one day after it exploded April 21, 2010 CREDIT: Herbert/AP

The two BP supervisors on board the Deepwater Horizon rig who made the last critical decisions before its tragic and historic explosion in 2010 won’t be able to easily escape involuntary manslaughter charges over the deaths of eleven fellow workers, a Louisiana federal judge ruled Monday, saying the case should be decided by a jury.

Donald J. Vidrine and Robert Kaluz had pled not guilty in 2012 to the charges in their 23-count indictment, which accuses them of mishandling an important safety test and failing to report abnormally high pressure readings that attorneys say were were obvious signs of an impending disaster. The blast, which blew out of BP’s Macondo well, immediately killed 11 workers and resulted in the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The supervisors had tried to get the involuntary manslaughter charges dismissed from the case before it went to trial, but U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. was not convinced by their arguments.

“Provided that the government is able to prove that the defendants’ actions caused the blowout that caused the eleven deaths on the Deepwater Horizon, the facts as alleged are sufficient to conclude that an ordinary person would reasonably understand that the improper administration of the negative testing and actions surrounding such administration of the test in light of the inherent danger in deepwater drilling would subject one to criminal sanctions,” Judge Duval wrote.

Attempting to get the case dismissed, attorneys for Donald J. Vidrine and Robert Kaluza had argued that the criminal statutes governing the case were unconstitutionally vague — specifically, that the federal statute for involuntary manslaughter was not specific enough regarding the “standard of care” that the supervisors were supposed to maintain on the rig. According to their argument, BP’s professional conduct guidelines had provided “little to no ascertainable standard” of how supervisors were supposed to have acted to prevent the blowout. Vidrine and Kaluza, they said, never could have known they were violating the law.

A criminal statute can be deemed vague under the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause if the defendants can prove that they could not have reasonably understood that their alleged conduct was forbidden, the court noted.

Judge Duval, however, disagreed with the supervisor’s attorneys, saying external rules by BP were not necessary in order for the supervisors to be held accountable under criminal law.

“The statutes at issue in this matter have been interpreted to require ordinary negligence and gross negligence, which have well-settled legal meanings,” Judge Duval wrote, noting that the attorneys had provided no case law stating otherwise. “To find otherwise would mean that, absent an external standard of care, no ‘professional’ could be held accountable for such conduct.”

Judge Duval also noted that if the facts alleged in the case are true, it would be “difficult” to prove that the supervisors did not expect to be punished for their negligence. And even if they didn’t expect criminal charges, he wrote, it would not necessarily matter.

“Though a criminal may not foresee certain consequences, the law may still hold him or her accountable for negligent actions,” he wrote.

The men killed on the rig, as per an Associated Press report, are listed below.

Jason Anderson, 35, of Midfield, Texas. A father of two. His wife, Shelley, said Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday. Anderson began preparing a will in February 2010 and kept it in a spiral notebook. It sank with the rig.

Aaron Dale “Bubba” Burkeen, 37, of Philadelphia, Miss. His death at the Deepwater Horizon came on his wedding anniversary and four days before his birthday. He was married with two children.

Donald Clark, 49, of Newellton, La. He was one of six workers scheduled to leave the rig on April 21, the day after the blast.

Stephen Ray Curtis, 40, of Georgetown, La., Curtis was married and had two teenagers.

Gordon Jones, 28, of Baton Rouge, La. Jones arrived on the rig the day before the explosion. He died three days before his sixth wedding anniversary and 10 minutes after talking to his pregnant wife, Michelle Jones. Their son, Max, was born three weeks later.

Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, Jonesville, La. Kemp was married. His daughter’s birthday was 3 days before the explosion. Kemp was one of six workers scheduled to leave the rig on April 21.

Karl Kleppinger Jr., 38, of Natchez, Miss. Kleppinger was a veteran of the first Gulf War and the father of one child.

Keith Blair Manuel, 56, of Gonzales, La. Manuel had three daughters. He was a fan of LSU athletics and had football and basketball season tickets.

Dewey A. Revette, 48, of State Line, Miss. Revette had been married to his wife, Sherri, for 26 years when the rig exploded. He was one of six workers scheduled to leave the rig on April 21.

Shane M. Roshto, 22, of Liberty, Miss. His wife, Natalie, filed a lawsuit April 21, 2010, saying she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after her husband was killed in the explosion. He was one of six workers who were set to leave the rig on April 21.

Adam Weise, 24, Yorktown, Texas. Weise drove 10 hours to Louisiana every three weeks to work on the rig. A high school football star, he spent off- time hunting and fishing. He was one of six workers scheduled to leave the rig on April 21.

Judge Duval’s full opinion can be found here.

H/T to Law360.