District Court Dismisses Seaman’s Manslaughter Charge Against Captain In Dive Boat Tragedy

In a recent decision on September 1, 2022, District Judge Wu of the Central District of California dismissed the seaman’s manslaughter charge against Captain Jerry Boylan, the captain of the dive boat Conception which caught fire and sank off of Santa Cruz Island in September 2019 and killed 34 people.  In USA v. Boylan, the District Court dismissed the charge for Seaman’s Manslaughter, 18 U.S.C. § 1115, because the Indictment failed to allege “gross negligence” as an element of the charge, a fatal defect to the indictment.  Captain Boylan argued that Congress is presumed to have incorporated common law meanings in the terms it uses in the statutes, and therefore a showing greater than simple ‘negligence’ was a required element of the charge.

The Government argued that the charge need only allege simple negligence to establish the elements of the crime based on the plain language of the statute, which holds: “Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. § 1115 (emphasis added).  The district court acknowledged that there was no specific precedent from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue and then performed a comprehensive comparative analysis of other decisions from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which had reviewed and defined the required elements under 18 U.S.C. § 1112, i.e. the Involuntary Manslaughter statute. In the historical review of decisions, the Court relied on the Ninth Circuit’s comments that the Circuit had “consistently held that involuntary manslaughter” requires gross negligence. United States v. Garcia, 729 F.3d 1171 (9th Cir. 2013).

The district court summarized, “it is difficult for this Court to understand why gross negligence would be required for an involuntary manslaughter conviction under Section 1112 but not for a conviction under Section 1115. Neither statute facially requires gross negligence, but common-law understandings incorporate that requirement into an involuntary manslaughter charge under Section 1112. The Government itself has described its charge against Defendant under Section 1115 as “Seaman’s Manslaughter,” but has been unable to convincingly explain why a similar incorporation of common-law understandings should not occur under that statute.” See p. 7.

Judge Wu found that based on applicable Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court cases involving interpretation of legislative text, there must be a requirement for ‘gross negligence’ as an element of conviction under Section 1115 (even though not expressly stated in the statute), and therefore it must be a required element of the charging indictment.  Accordingly, the Court dismissed the charge against Captain Boylan without prejudice.  The government filed an appeal of the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on September 7, 2022 and the matter has been assigned appellate number 22-50198.

To read a copy of the opinion, please click here.

If you have any questions about the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act, please contact us at info@chaloslaw.com.