The California boat fire that killed 34 people on Labor Day 2019 has made a law from 1838 relevant once again. The pre-Civil War Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute calls for up to 10 years in prison for any crew member found responsible for misconduct that led to any deaths. This statute has been used three times in recent years after being revived by a 2003 case involving the Staten Island ferry in which 11 people died. However, this law gives prosecutors a lot of leeway that they've taken advantage of.
Maritime Attorney Chris Nolan commented, "The statute is broadly worded and yet lightly interpreted until recently. This offers room for interpretation."
"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," said Mr. Nolan.
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