Providing Legal Services For More Than 125 Years

Workers May Be Liable For On-The-Job Negligence

On Behalf of | Apr 1, 2010 | Employment Law

Most people understand that a worker may be held responsible in a civil action for his own negligence at work which causes injury to others or for his knowingly criminal conduct at work. What workers must also understand is that under certain criminal statutes they may be held individually liable for their own negligent conduct even if conducted within the scope of their employment. Traditionally for a crime to be committed, the alleged perpetrator would require a “mens rea”, a guilty or wrongful purpose. However, certain actions may result in criminal culpability even though the actions were done negligently rather than with a criminal intent. This is known in the law as strict criminal liability. In the case of USA v. Hanousek, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld as proper the Federal District Court’s instruction to the jury that Mr. Hanousek could be found criminally liable for negligently discharging a harmful quantity of oil into navigable waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act. After a 20-day trial, the jury convicted Mr. Hanousek of that crime.

The criminal charge was a result of an estimate of 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of heating oil being discharged into the Skagway River in Alaska when a backhoe struck an unprotected pipeline. Other sections of the pipeline had been protected during the project, yet when Mr. Hanousek took over responsibility of the project for his employer, Pacific & Arctic Railway and Navigation Company, he ceased the prior practice of protecting the pipeline thereby permitting the discharge when the accident occurred.

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that for criminal culpability there does not need to be a heightened negligence standard and agreed with the following jury instruction: “In order for the defendant Ed Hanousek to be found guilty of negligent discharge of oil, the government must prove the following elements beyond reasonable doubt:
· The particular defendant caused the discharge of oil;
· The discharge of oil was into a navigable waterway of the United States;
· The amount of oil was of a quantity that may be harmful; and
· The discharge was caused by the negligence of the particular defendant.”

As a result of the criminal conviction, Mr. Hanousek was sentenced to six months in prison, six months in a halfway house and six months of supervised release. Mr. Hanousek was given a sentence greater than the minimum because he was a supervisor, a factor which can be taken into account under Federal Sentencing Guidelines and was by the sentencing judge.

A very clear lesson from this case is that a worker does not always have to have a guilty or wrongful purpose to be found culpable under certain criminal statute for actions or inactions at work. While a company’s insurance may sometimes help insulate its workers from the financial ramifications of their negligence, the criminal penalties of fines are usually excluded from insurance coverage and such insurance cannot protect from a jail sentence. Workers, particularly supervisors, should understand what environmental and other hazards are possible at work and take steps to minimize those hazards for the best interests of everyone.

J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].