NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge agreed Tuesday to dismiss some of the manslaughter charges against two BP supervisors in the deaths of 11 workers when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. ruled that charging rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine with 11 counts of “seaman’s manslaughter” exceeded the intended scope of the statute in connection with their job duties as “well site leaders” on the rig that exploded in April 2010, prompting the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.
But Duval refused to dismiss 11 other counts of involuntary manslaughter that Kaluza and Vidrine were charged with last year in a 23-count indictment. Their trial on the remaining counts is scheduled to start in June 2014.
Prosecutors claim Kaluza and Vidrine botched a key safety test and disregarded abnormally high pressure readings that were glaring signs of trouble before the blowout of energy company BP’s Macondo well. The blowout triggered an explosion that killed the 11 workers and led to millions of gallons of crude spewing into the Gulf.
Lawyers for Kaluza and Vidrine argued that the seaman’s manslaughter charges don’t apply to their clients because, as well site leaders, they weren’t responsible for marine operations, maintenance or navigation of the rig. During a hearing in September, a Justice Department prosecutor maintained that anyone responsible for the safety of the vessel or its crew fits within the scope of the statute.
Duval said no court has previously addressed whether the 175-year-old statute applies in a prosecution related to a drilling rig blowout. The judge said he recognizes the “soundness” of the government’s argument that these blowouts pose risks and safety concerns similar to steamboat explosions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The risk of explosion onboard deepwater drilling facilities is a grave matter. Yet, it is for Congress to include such types of disasters within the scope of (the statute), and this Court refuses to expand the scope of the statute unnecessarily without certainty as to Congress’ intent to do so,” he wrote.
Kaluza and Vidrine also face one count of violating the Clean Water Act. Duval hasn’t ruled on a separate request to dismiss that count.
The Deepwater Horizon rig, which London-based BP PLC leased from Houston-based Transocean Ltd., was about 48 miles from the Louisiana coast at the time of the deadly blast.
Duval is currently presiding over a trial in New Orleans for the Justice Department’s separate case against former BP engineer Kurt Mix, who is charged with deleting text messages and voicemails about the company’s response to the spill.
Mix has pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice.