Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1115, creates criminal liability for negligent seamen and vessel owners/operators. The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute was passed in response to Senator Josiah Johnson being killed by an explosion while he was on a passenger steamboat in Louisiana. The steamboat owner was accused of negligence, but there was no law to prosecute the owner.

There are three categories in which someone can be found liable under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute:

  1. When someone employed on a vessel is negligent in the performance of their duties and that negligence directly causes the death of someone.
  2. When the death of a person results from fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law by a vessel owner, a vessel charter, an inspector, or some other public officer.
  3. When someone whose duty it is to control and manage the operation, equipment, or navigation of a vessel knowingly and willfully allows the corporate entity’s neglect to cause the death of a human being.

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Information Center

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Penalties Under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute

The Seaman Manslaughter Statute states that anyone convicted under the statute must be fined or imprisoned for up to ten years. The court system is responsible for determining the length of imprisonment and how severe the fine should be; however, the maximum fine is either $250,000 or twice the gross financial gain to the defendant or loss to the victim, whichever is greatest.

A judge may impose supervised release after imprisonment, or if the judge believes imprisonment is too severe, probation may be imposed instead. A convicted defendant must also pay the government a mandatory assessment of $100 to $400; restitution may be ordered in cases that warrant it.

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Restitution requires the criminal defendant to pay back the damages caused to all injured. This generally results in an investigation into the financial resources of the defendant and the damages caused to the victim and their family.

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Several defenses may be available to a defendant, including that they were not negligent or fraudulent, nor did they knowingly or willfully allow the corporate entities to neglect.

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Prosecution Under the Statute

In the past, prosecution under the statute was exceedingly rare. In fact, there were only about eight major prosecutions in the first 142 years of the statute’s existence. However, several high-profile cases have been tried under the statute in the last few decades.

United States v. Mitlof and Sheehan

In  a water taxi was allowed to operate with numerous mechanical and structural issues leading it to capsize and kill one passenger. The vessel’s owner was convicted of manslaughter under the statute, among other crimes.

United States v. Shore

In  an underage woman was killed on a cruise after the first mate became aware that a railing was broken and failed to fix it or have someone stand guard to ensure none of the passengers were injured. As a result, a young woman fell off the boat and drowned. The Coast Guard was not called until 50 minutes after the incident, resulting in the captain and first mate of the boat pleading guilty to manslaughter because of their negligence that led to the woman’s death. They were both sentenced to six months of house arrest for their part in the woman’s death.

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute applies to more than large commercial vessels, it also applies to passenger boats. Due to the increased prosecution rate under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, companies should be aware that any fatality may well result in an investigation.

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Additional Resources

Seaman’s Manslaughter Articles – This law review article gives a more in-depth review of the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act.

Professional Mariner Journal of the Maritime Industry – This article discusses a situation from 2007 in which a group of Mariners asked for changes to the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.

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    The Maritime Law Association of the United States (MLA) was founded in 1899. Its formation was prompted by the organization, some three years earlier, of the International Maritime Committee.
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