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Paul Abrams

Paul Abrams

Posted: May 26, 2010 12:18 PM

Precedent for BP Criminal Responsibility: The Cocoanut Grove Fire (1942)

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A criminal investigation of BP should by launched by the Justice Department to determine if its executives were guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of 11 rig workers.

The classic case of the Cocoanut Grove fire provides the legal precedent.

On the evening of November 28, 1942, a fire swept through the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, killing 492 people. The owners had ignored various codes and safety regulations, for example, welding shut side doors, that could have been used to escape, so that customers could not leave without paying their bills. The nightclub had twice the number of allowed guests.

The owner, who was said to have had mafia and political connections that allowed him to operate in violation of the codes and safety regulations, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to a 10-15 year jail sentence.

Unlike murder that requires various levels of specific intent, involuntary manslaughter is applied to situations in which the perpetrators act with utter indifference to human life, or reckless indifference, or gross negligence (definitions vary, but the descriptions all have the same concept).

Although innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, BP executives appear to have displayed the same reckless indifference to human life vs profits as the Cocoanut Grove owners. Although the corporate structure protects management and owners from individual liability, the corporate veil can be pierced in cases of fraud and criminality.

Moreover, BP has been alleged to have improperly influenced its regulators. Not only is this similar to the Cocoanut Grove owners, but it may also raise questions of the criminal liability of those regulators. That issue did not arise in the Cocoanut Grove fire, possibly because the owner was the one who had the final opportunity to follow the codes despite a carte blanche to avoid them. But, when it comes to "reckless indifference" to human life, the MMS regulators may be considered co-conspirators.

Such regulatory laxity may also be traceable to Dick Cheney -- at the very least, the investigation's need for the minutes and participants of his meetings in 2001 with oil executives should now trump the (bogus) executive privilege claim that Justice Scalia -- who went hunting with Cheney soon before the decision -- and his compatriots on the Court granted him. [Strangely, the Court never raised the question of whether Cheney actually was part of the Executive Branch, an assertion Cheney denied when confronted with his violation of executive archival preservation rules].

One might also wonder why Michael Vick should go to jail for dog-fighting, but BP can kill marine life with impunity. Vick, of course, had intent. The standard for BP, again, would be reckless indifference. Leaving dogs in locked cars during heatwaves is probably a more apt precedent.

There is sufficient legal precedent, though, to launch a criminal investigation of BP executives for involuntary manslaughter of the rig-workers.

To the objection that we have to focus on the clean-up, I quote President Obama: "we can do two things at once."