Captain jailed under Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute is set free
Although a captain convicted using the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute has been released from jail, the lawyer representing the owner of his vessel said industry groups should lobby to have this law changed.
Capt. Wolfgang Schroder was released from jail on Feb. 7 after Callie V.S. Granade, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Alabama, Southern District, disregarded sentencing guidelines that called for prison time of 10 to 16 months. Instead the judge set his sentence as the amount of time he had already spent in jail.
Schroder had spent about four months in jail when he was released. He had been held since a federal jury convicted him on October 4, 2006, of criminal misconduct by a ship’s officer.
The maximum penalty for the charge could have been 10 years. Schroder had 72 hours to leave the country.
“She (the judge) did not find that the captain acted with gross negligence,” said Michael Chalos, an attorney for Chalos, O’Connor & Duffy of Port Washington, N.Y., which represented the manager of Schroder’s vessel, Rickmers Reederei, of Hamburg, Germany. “This case should have been handled as a civil case.”
On Oct. 12, 2006, Schroder was convicted by a jury of criminal misconduct under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.
Schroder was captain of the 10,736-gross-ton containership Zim Mexico III when the vessel’s bow thruster failed as it was making a 180° turn to leave the Mobile State Docks and head downriver at about 1130 on March 2, 2006. The bow struck the pier and severed the two front legs of the container crane, which collapsed backward, killing Shawn Jacobs, a maintenance electrician, and seriously injuring another electrician. The captain was acting on the advice of the bar pilot when he decided not to call for a tugboat to make this maneuver. The bar pilot was not charged.
During the trial, prosecutors criticized the captain for using the shaft generator to power the bow thruster. The shaft generator is programmed to shut down if the rpms of the main engine rise or fall 10 percent from the required speed. It had also failed twice in 2005. Prosecutors claimed the captain did not inform the pilot of this problem, even though the captain knew that it could disable the bow thruster.
The captain was arrested on April 17 when his vessel stopped in Houston. He was charged with criminal negligence and originally held without bail. Subsequently bail was set, and the captain was able to pay it, permitting his release before the trial. However, his passport was seized and he could not leave Mobile. After his October conviction, the captain was jailed until sentencing on Feb. 7, when the judge set him free. Schroder is a German native who lives in Ireland.
Chalos said the problem with the statute is that it allows a mariner to be charged with manslaughter on the basis of simple negligence. Gross negligence, Chalos said, is “the normal standard under any criminal charge.”
“When you have an equipment failure or even a lapse in judgment … it really should not be a criminal offense” unless there is gross negligence, Chalos said.
The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute was passed in 1852 in response to fatal boiler explosions, but was rarely used. It has been used several times since 1992, most notably in the case of the Staten Island Ferry crash in October 2003, which killed 11 people (PM #77).
Chalos believes the law will eventually be challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. A more direct way to change the law, “is for industry groups and the industry itself, through the various lobbying efforts they do, to approach Congress and have the law changed,” he said. In these cases, prosecutors should have to prove negligence as gross negligence, “which is essentially manslaughter, and true of every other criminal case that involves death,” Chalos said.
Rickmers Reederei, the manager of Zim Mexico III, reached a plea agreement in November, accepting responsibility for the accident and paying a fine of $375,000.