Charges may hinge on 1838 law. Here’s why


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Officials in Santa Barbara, California say they’ve identified the remains of 18 of the 34 victims from the deadly dive boat fire, as a multi-agency effort to investigate the cause of the fire continues. (Sept. 6)
AP, AP

Maritime laws enacted in the 1800s, typically obscure to all but a handful of experts, are suddenly gaining prominence through their link to the Southern California boat fire that killed 34 people.

The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 was cited last week by the owners of dive boat operator Truth Aquatics, whose vessel burst into flames early in the morning of Labor Day just off Santa Cruz Island, claiming the lives of 33 passengers and a crew member.

Now the arcane Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, passed in 1838 and amended in 1852, figures to play a leading role if prosecutors file criminal charges stemming from the tragedy.

Two sources have confirmed to The Associated Press that a criminal investigation has been opened into the case, with the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles spearheading the inquiry.

Here are questions to some answers about a pre-Civil War law that has gained new relevance:

What’s the law’s intent?

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute aimed to curtail steamboat accidents at a time when thousands were dying in such mishaps.

Inquiry started: Criminal investigation launched into deadly California boat fire

The law calls for up to 10 years in prison for any “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.’’

The measure also applies to owners, operators and public officers whose dereliction of duties leads to any deaths. 

The most unusual aspect of the statute is it requires prosecutors only to prove negligence or misconduct, a low bar to gain a conviction for a criminal offense.

“It creates a standard that’s very similar to civil fault,’’ said Martin Davies, director of the Tulane University Maritime Law Center. “It’s just ordinary negligence. It’s usually much higher (like gross negligence).’’

Has it been used in recent memory?

Yes, in the 2003 crash of a Staten Island ferry in which 11 people died, in the case brought by the Department of Justice against BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and, last year, following the duck boat accident in Missouri that killed 17 people.

The ferry’s pilot and his supervisor were convicted and sentenced to prison. BP eventually pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter and lesser charges in the oil rig blowout. The captain of the duck boat in Missouri and two employees of the company that operated it have been indicted on federal charges and are awaiting trial.

Why the recent reliance on it?

The successful application of the archaic statute in the 2003 ferry case may have helped revive it.

Legal experts say the way the law is written gives prosecutors a wide berth, and they’re taking advantage of it, although the courts don’t always go along. In 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that two BP well site managers, the company’s highest-ranking employees on the rig, were not criminally liable in the deadly blowout.

“The statute is broadly worded and yet lightly interpreted until recently. This offers room for interpretation,’’ said Chris Nolan, a partner in the New York office of Holland & Knight, the nation’s largest maritime law firm.

“In higher profile cases and everyday incidents alike, prosecutors have pushed to include shipping persons not traditionally contemplated as being criminally responsible in a marine casualty. This was the case in the Deepwater Horizon spill and the appeals court reigned in the prosecutor’s zeal by reading the statute more narrowly.’’

How would it apply in this case?

Investigators are looking into several safety concerns that include staff training for emergencies, safety instructions to passengers and whether there was a night watchman on duty when the fire broke out.

All indications are the boat in question, the Conception, was in compliance with safety regulations, having passed a Coast Guard inspection in February. Davies said a vessel’s seaworthiness goes beyond its physical condition and includes the crew’s fitness to handle its duties, but he thinks prosecutors will find it hard to prove criminal liability, even with the low standard.

Victims identified: Five more victims of Conception boat fire named; search for last victim continues

“You’d have to point at things they should have done that they did not do, and you’d have to show that whatever those things were actually caused the deaths,’’ Davies said. “I’m no criminal lawyer, but I think it would be hard to make that stick, against the owners and against any of them.’’

The captain and four other crew members, who were sleeping on the top deck, escaped the inferno.

Should the law be updated?

Ideally yes, especially because its low standard does not conform to the higher bar usually set for criminal offenses. In addition, loose wording that includes phrases like “or other person employed’’ leaves too much room for interpretation.

But any change would require a certain amount of impetus, perhaps generated by media attention on the boat fire case, before lawmakers took action.

“You’d have to attract the attention of Congress to what is a relatively minor matter as far as the great wheels of state are concerned,’’ Davies said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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