The Law and Order: Los Angeles episode entitled “Hondo Field” aired on Wednesday, November 10, 2010. This episode centers on the suspicious death of an oil rig worker named Freddy Ramirez, whose body is discovered floating in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. Los Angeles Police Department Detectives “Tomas ‘T.J.’ Jaruszalski” and “Rex Winters”, played by actors Corey Stoll and Skeet Ulrich, begin a full investigation into the murder of Ramirez. In the victim’s wallet the detectives find his workers’ union card, identifying him as an employee of Gulf Shore Oil Company. Gulf Shore owns and operates an off-shore oil rig named “Hondo Field,” located 5 miles off the California coast. Since “Hondo” is located only miles from where Ramirez’ body was found, the detectives suspect the death may have occurred on the rig. This possibility raises a problem for the Los Angeles detectives, since the Judiciary Act of 1789 grants the United States exclusive jurisdiction over all admiralty and maritime matters. The detectives go to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to ensure they have proper jurisdiction to investigate the murder. The BOEMRE is the federal agency responsible for overseeing the development of energy and mineral resources on waters lying between the seaward extent of the States’ jurisdiction and the seaward extent of Federal jurisdiction. The detectives take this step because officers of the state are prohibited from infringing upon matters of exclusive federal jurisdiction.
The “Hondo Field” episode raises the legal issues of jurisdiction and maritime law. “Platform Hondo” is an actual oil rig owned by Exxon Mobil that is located in the Pacific Ocean, 5.1 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. Hondo was installed in 1976 and began operating in 1981. Maritime cases are governed by federal laws and agencies. Maritime or admiralty law applies to boats, ships, seamen, offshore oil rigs and platforms, and any incident that occurs on the navigable waters lying seaward of state coastal waters which are under U.S. jurisdiction. Since Platform Hondo is further than 3 miles from land, it is designated as part of the “Outer Continental Shelf” (OCS). The Outer Continental Shelf Land Act (OCSLA) assigns responsibility to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) to oversee energy and mineral resource-related activities on Federal waters. Major incidents involving fatalities, serious injuries, or substantial damage that occur on offshore rigs must be reported to the Minerals Management Service. The MMS conducts an investigation to determine the cause of the incident and develops a prevention plan for any possible future incidents. The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) was enacted in 1920 to limit the liability of an operating vessel, ship, jet, or oil rig in navigable Federal waters in cases due to negligence. The DOHSA allows families of fatally injured oil rig workers to file wrongful death claims under 46 U.S.C. §688, known as The Jones Act. However, this Act limits the amount of damages recoverable to burial costs and loss of financial support the family member would have provided over his lifetime in the same job. The DOHSA also prevents the victim’s family members from suing owners of oil rigs for the negligence that caused the accident.
Congress is currently in the process of amending the DOHSA in order for the families of the oil workers killed in the BP Deep Water Horizon explosion to recover nonpecuniary damages. On July 1, 2010 the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5503, a bill created “to revise laws regarding liability in certain civil actions arising from maritime incidents, and for other purposes.” H.R. 5503 is known as the “SPILL” Act, which stands for the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act.” If its partner bill is later passed into the Senate, it will amend DOHSA to allow families to recover non-economic damages for loss of care, comfort, and companionship from the people responsible for the victim’s death. The SPILL Act will also repeal the limitations of liability for oil companies in order to hold them fully accountable for negligent operations that cause accidents and tragedies.
The jurisdictional problems raised by this episode of Law and Order: Los Angeles can be solved by finding out whether Ramirez’ death is a matter of admiralty law. This can be discovered by finding the cause and location of Ramirez’ death. The detectives need to first investigate whether the victim died on the offshore rig or in California. If Ramirez died on the Hondo rig on the OCS, admiralty laws will apply and the federal court would have exclusive jurisdiction. If he died on land, the State of California would have jurisdiction. During the episode, the detectives find the hat Ramirez was wearing the night he died. In the brim of the hat, they discover gravel mixed with the victim’s blood that came from the parking lot of his residence motel. The detectives also need to determine whether Ramirez’ death occurred as a result of negligence or if he was killed intentionally. This factor is relevant because the victim’s family will only have a wrongful death claim against the company under The Jones Act if his death was a result of the oil carrier’s negligent operation. In the episode, the medical examiner discovers that the victim was killed by blunt force trauma to the head, which rules out the possibility of an accidental death or responsibility on behalf of Ramirez’ employer. This evidence proves that the victim’s death was not accidental and was committed in the parking lot of his California motel. Since the death did not occur on the oil rig, the Federal agencies do not have jurisdiction. Ramirez’ death is ultimately ruled as a murder that took place within the state, which gives detectives Jaruszalski and Winters proper jurisdiction to investigate and solve his murder under the laws of California.