Deepwater Horizon Well Site Leaders Seek Dismissal

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June 2, 2013

(Bloomberg) Two BP Plc (BP/) well-site leaders who were aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig when an explosion killed 11 workers and triggered the biggest U.S. offshore oil spill asked a court to dismiss the federal charges against them.

Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, BP’s highest-ranking employees aboard the Gulf of Mexicorig during the April 20, 2010, blowout, are each charged with 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter and one count of violating the U.S. Clean Water Act. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in January. The most serious count against them carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

Prosecutors said that the men, who supervised key pressure tests during the final drilling operations, ignored indications that the well wasn’t secure. The defendants said in a filing yesterday in federal court in New Orleans that U.S. laws don’t extend to a drilling rig floating in mile-deep waters almost 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast. The territorial boundary is 12 miles off shore.

The Deepwater Horizon, which was owned by Vernier, Switzerland-based Transocean Ltd. (RIG) and was drilling the Macondo well for London-based BP, carried the flag of the Marshall Islands, which isn’t subject to U.S. laws, according to the filing.

‘Territorial Jurisdiction’

The U.S. “lacks territorial jurisdiction for acts occurring on the Deepwater Horizon, and Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine may not be prosecuted” under the statues they were charged with violating, David Gerger and Shaun Clarke, Kaluza’s lawyers, said in the filing.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, declined in an e-mail to comment on the filing, saying the government will reply in court at the appropriate time.

David Rainey, BP’s former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was charged with obstruction of Congress and making false statements related to the size of the spill. A federal judge in New Orleans on May 20 threw out the obstruction charge. Rainey will stand trial on the remaining count in October.

BP pleaded guilty to 14 charges and agreed to pay $4 billion to resolve all criminal claims against it arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident. The company also agreed to pay an additional $525 million to resolve claims by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it underestimated the size of the spill to bolster stock prices. More than 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the gulf, the U.S. estimated.

Felony Manslaughter

The 14 criminal counts include 11 for felony manslaughter, one felony count of obstruction of Congress, one misdemeanor count under the Clean Water Act and one misdemeanor count under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to the plea agreement.

Thirteen of the charges are related to the accident itself and are based on negligent misinterpretation of the negative pressure test conducted on board the rig, BP said in the plea agreement. The obstruction count involves communications on flow-rate estimates to a congressional subcommittee, according to court filings.

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, had no comment on the well-site leaders’ request to dismiss charges against them.

Kaluza and Vidrine said they can’t be prosecuted under statutes applying U.S. jurisdiction to the Outer Continental Shelf because the Deepwater Horizon wasn’t “erected on the seafloor” and was floating in waters considered “the high seas,” which aren’t covered by those laws.

‘Ships’ Officers’

They also claim the seaman’s manslaughter charges should be dismissed because that statute only applies to “ships’ officers and other employees working in marine operations, maintenance or navigation.’’

“The statute does not apply to persons such as Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine working on a vessel in a different capacity,’’ according to the filing.

The cases are U.S. v. Kaluza, 12-cr-00265; U.S. v. Rainey, 12-cr-00291; and BP is U.S. v. BP Exploration and Production Inc., 12-00292, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

Article by Laurel Brubaker Calkins. (c) 2013 Bloomberg

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