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Negligent Manager Imprisoned For Environmental Spill

An employee’s ordinary negligence may lead to criminal liability under the Clean Water Act.

A federal court of appeals has upheld the felony conviction of a company’s manager of operations, ruling that ordinary negligence which caused environmental harm is a sufficient basis to find criminal liability under the federal Clean Water Act. (U.S. v. Hanousek, 9th Cir., No. 97-30185).

The defendant was convicted of negligently discharging a harmful quantity of heating oil into the Skagway River in violation of the Clean Water Act. The federal district in Alaska imposed a sentence of six months in prison, six months in a halfway house, six months of supervised release and a $5,000 fine on Mr. Hanousek, who was the roadmaster for the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. The basis for his conviction was the failure to supervise a backhoe operator employed by one of the railroad’s independent contractors. During a rock-quarrying project, the backhoe operator accidentally ruptured an unprotected petroleum pipeline running parallel to the railroad within a few feet of the tracks. As the result of the rupture, approximately 5,000 gallons of heating oil leaked down an embankment into the adjacent Skagway River.

According to the court, the criminal provisions of the Clean Water Act constitute “public welfare legislation” designed to protect the public at large from the potentially dire consequences of water pollution.

Management personnel who fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm may well face criminal prosecution.

As such, the statute may impose criminal penalties on a person for ordinary negligent conduct without violating an individual’s constitutional guarantee of due process. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the government must prove criminal negligence (i.e., a gross deviation from the standard of ordinary care by a reasonable person) in order to convict.

In this case, there was no evidence that the defendant knew the pipeline was at risk or that he directed the activities of the backhoe operator whose equipment ruptured the pipeline. It was sufficient that Hanousek was the person in charge of the project and was responsible for directing the daily activities of the employees.

The decision significantly increases the criminal exposure of executive and management personnel for Clean Water Act violations. Those individuals with knowledge of the conduct which causes environmental harm who fail to take corrective action or who fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent such harm may well face criminal prosecution. Actual knowledge that the conduct violates the law is not required to sustain a conviction.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

George Keeley Meet the Author
George W. Keeley, Esq. is legal counsel for MHEDA and a partner with Keeley, Kuenn & Reid in Chicago, Illinois.


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