A case in Elizabeth, New Jersey is raising some difficult questions about the limits of liability for injuries to emergency personnel. Emilio Vasquez, 19, a homeless man from Guatemala, is charged with breaking in a home and starting a fire to stay warm. The fire got out of control and the fire department was called. Firefighter Gary Stephens was one of those responding, but was killed when a fire truck backed into him. Vasquez has been charged with his murder.
The loss of a firefighter like Stephens is obviously a terrible blow for not just his family but society. There is also good reason to aggravate criminal charges when criminal conduct results in an injury or death of a police officer or emergency personnel. However, a murder charge in this case is difficult to square with the facts.
The truck was moving only 5 miles an hour and had a back signal (but the nearby New Jersey turnpike may have drowned out the warning). Stephens was pinned under the truck.
It appears that this was not an intentional act of arson but a homeless person trying to keep warm. Serious criminal charges are clearly warranted but a murder charge seems excessive despite our collective sense of loss with Stephens’ death.
These type of charges for collateral deaths have increased in the last few decades. It began with the loss of officers due to intentional criminal acts of arson and other crimes. It is now being used in cases that appear to be negligence and recklessness. Other cases of accidental fires, however, has resulted in murder charges as here and here and here. However, some judges have thrown out such charges as excessive, as in this case of two firefighters killed in putting out a fire in an illegal marijuana cultivation operation.
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