Mariner groups pressing for changes to Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute

Capt. Wolfgang Schroder was released in February after spending four months in jail following his conviction under
the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. (Courtesy Jonas Lyborg)

 

Galvanized by the jailing of Capt. Wolfgang Schroder, U.S. maritime organizations are initiating a lobbying effort to change the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.

The Council of American Master Mariners Inc. and the Seamen’s Church Institute began contacting members of Congress this summer. The organizations’ goal is to reduce the possibility that seafarers will face criminal charges when their vessels are involved in an accidental casualty.

 
Unlike any other profession in the United States, seamen can be charged with felony manslaughter in cases where the prosecution can prove only simple negligence. In any other industry, it’s manslaughter only if gross negligence occurred.
 
For that reason, the Seamen’s Manslaughter Statute is unfair to mariners, said former U.S. Maritime Administrator Capt. Warren Leback. The statute breeds unnecessary fear on ships’ bridges and hurts the reputation of the U.S. maritime industry in the eyes of potential employees and foreign ship owners, said Leback, a past president of the Council of American Master Mariners.
 
“They’ve got to change the law,” Leback said. “Otherwise, you’re going to have (recruitment) problems, and competent ship masters will be reluctant to take a ship into U.S. waters if that law continues to be on the books.”
 
Schroder, a native of Germany who resides in Ireland, spent four months in an Alabama jail following his conviction under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. Schroder was captain of the containership Zim Mexico III, which struck a pier while leaving the Mobile State Docks, causing a crane to collapse. The March 2006 accident killed a maintenance electrician who was working on the pier (PM #96).
Schroder has said he acted on the advice of a bar pilot, who stated that a tugboat was unnecessary for the maneuver. Prosecutors, though, accused the captain of failing to mention to the pilot that the ship’s shaft generator could shut down and disable the bow thruster.

Below, in March 2006 a ship under his command struck a crane in Mobile, Ala., killing a crane worker. (Mobile Register/Bill Starling)
 
A federal jury convicted Schroder in October 2006. He was jailed until his Feb. 7 sentencing, when a District Court judge sentenced him to time served and released him.
 
The maximum punishment under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute is 10 years in prison. That’s unfairly harsh for an act that may not be grossly negligent, especially considering the standard applies to no other industry, said Douglas Stevenson, director of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights in New York.
“We don’t need to single out seafarers,” Stevenson said. “I think that’s sending the wrong signal. There shouldn’t be a special punishment reserved for the maritime field.”
 
The two U.S.-based maritime groups aren’t the only organizations supporting a change in the law. The International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations in London became concerned about the Schroder case and its effect on the operation of ships that sail in U.S. waters.
Capt. Rodger MacDonald, secretary general of the federation, calls the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute “an anomaly” even among nations known for the criminalization of actions by mariners. Seamen worry now about ending up in an American jail should an accident occur at a U.S. port.
 
“They don’t really know their rights under the law of that country, and it can be quite frightening,” MacDonald said. “The U.S.’s reputation now is recognized around the world. The ship masters are concerned about going to the U.S.A.”
Leback said decisions made on the bridge in good faith should not be attacked with a “scatter-gun approach” by prosecutors eager to make a criminal accusation. The Schroder case proves that lawmakers, prosecutors and judges need to learn more about the realities of maritime life, he said.
“He was treated as a common criminal before he was ever charged with anything,” Leback said. “You can’t stand in the shoes of the master — and that’s what the district attorney did in Mobile — this unbridled ability to second guess what happened. You can’t do that with a ship master, whether he’s American or a foreigner.”
 
The Council of American Master Mariners this summer asked its members to write letters to their congressional members asking for support for changing the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.
Stevenson in July wrote letters to all members of the House and Senate transportation and judiciary committees urging a repeal of the law. Stevenson said a bill could be introduced during the current congressional session, which ends in January 2009.
 
While it shops for members of Congress to sponsor a reform proposal, the Council of American Master Mariners said it is bracing for opposition from some officials in the Coast Guard or Justice Department. They might argue that any softening of the law could remove a deterrent to carelessness at sea.
The Bush Administration wants to be viewed as tough on crime, Stevenson said, and may be reluctant to support a weaker manslaughter law — unless evidence is presented that the harsher standards for mariners don’t do any good.
 
“It’s difficult to repeal a criminal law in this environment,” Stevenson said.
Jeanne Grasso, a maritime attorney with Blank Rome LLP in Washington, said the law could possibly be amended slightly — while keeping language in place that would still punish the most blatantly reckless misconduct.
“Simply the word ‘negligence’ in one or two places in the statute is what’s tripping things up here,” Grasso said. “Possibly inserting the words ‘gross negligence’ may solve the problem.”
 
The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute has its origins in the early 19th century. The advent of steamboat travel on America’s waterways brought a rash of catastrophic boiler explosions and fatal fires. In 1833, President Andrew Jackson promised that the federal government would step in to make steamboats safer. Congress in 1838 and 1852 passed stringent laws governing maritime safety.
The acts spawned an early framework for what is now the Coast Guard’s vessel inspection system. The 1852 legislation also created the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, with the idea of reducing crew error.
 
Over a century and a half later, opponents are determined to show Congress that the statute never resulted in its intended benefit. Father Sinclair Oubre, U.S. president of the Apostleship of the Sea, said the law also is discriminatory.
A native of Port Arthur, Texas, and a former seaman on offshore service vessels, Oubre noted that his region has witnessed many deadly accidents at oil refineries and rigs. Though such fatalities are often due to reckless or irresponsible behavior, company managers and foremen aren’t charged with felony manslaughter.
 
“Since mariners are often faceless and many of them are foreigners, we take a more suspicious look at them and we treat them sort of differently,” Oubre said. “To send maritime officers to prison because there has been a fatality, that’s pretty heavy-handed and doesn’t match what happens elsewhere in the community.”
Beyond the letter writing, the mariners’ groups say they’re serious about coming up with a concrete legislative proposal and asking sympathetic members of Congress to sign on. They will point out that the manslaughter law is a barrier to staffing a Jones Act fleet.
 
“This isn’t something that we can just forget about,” Stevenson said. “We’re having a recruiting and retention crisis, particularly on U.S.-flagged vessels. You can go to jail working on a ship for something you cannot go to jail for working on a bus or a train.”
Stevenson also believes the statute causes more danger at sea, not less.
 
“Exposing people to criminal prosecution for simple negligent acts hinders advances in maritime safety,” he said. “If you have somebody on that ship exposed to criminal prosecution, they are going to be told to keep their mouth shut. That potentially cuts off sources of information that would be helpful in investigating the casualty and preventing a similar casualty from happening again.”
Categories: Maritime News