California prosecutors have brought a rare manslaughter charged against an architect for the substandard construction and design of a $11 million mansion. Albert Becker, 48, was arrested after a firefighter died in a blaze at the home, which was going to be the backdrop for a reality show called “Germany’s Next Model.”
The allegations are pretty shocking, including that Becker built the fireplaces using drywall and that one of the fireplaces actually vented inside of the house. Officials say that Becker told an inspector that the fireplaces were purely decorative. Here are the court documents.
He is charged with altering the house after the inspection and ignoring demands for changes in the construction. He is accused telling that inspector that there were no plans for fireplaces. Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney said that Becker “built an 18-foot fire trough designed for outdoors inside the home. It was a recipe for disaster.”
The case, however, could raise some interesting questions of the conversion of a negligent act into a criminal charge. There would seem little question over the negligence, including negligence per se. However, does this means that any negligence per se claim can become a manslaughter charge. The line has become murkier over time. The concept of criminal negligence and the expansion to manslaughter laws to cover acts like drunk driving has tended to converge with civil and criminal areas. Such negligence in construction, however, is quite common with builders cutting corners. Thousands of burns and deaths of citizens each year could be traced to such negligence. The question is when do such cases become criminal. Most are not criminalized.
The common law has historically made it difficult for firefighters and police officers to even sue civilly. Under the so-called Fireman’s Rule, courts after Gibson v. Leonard, 143 Ill. 182, 32 N.E. 182 (1892) barred policemen and firefighters from recovering. For example, the court in Carson v. Headrick, 900 S.W..2d 685 (Tenn. 1995) held:
“[W]e observe that the preservation of organized society requires the presence and protection of police officers. Situations requiring the presence of police, although commonplace and inevitable, are also routinely dangerous. Public policy considerations, as well as societal expectations, militate against allowing police officers to institute tort actions against a citizen for an injury resulting from a risk the officer is trained and hired to confront. Simply stated, societal policies do not support imposition of a duty of reasonable care upon a citizen calling for police assistance. Rather, public policy is served when citizens are encouraged to summon aid from police, regardless of their negligence, and are assured that the compensation for injuries sustained by police in the line of duty will be borne by the public as a whole. Accordingly, we conclude as a matter of public policy that a citizen owes no duty of reasonable care to police officers responding to that citizen’s call for assistance and join the majority of other jurisdictions who have reaffirmed the policemen and firemen’s rule on public policy grounds.”
The charges in the California case reflect a trend for greater civil and criminal liability in cases. Most past such cases however have often involved owner failing to warn firefighters of dangers or acting criminally in their pre-accident conduct.
The death of firefighter Glenn Allen in this case was a terrible and avoidable tragedy. The question is whether the courts will use the case to draw a more clear line of demarcation between civil and criminal conduct. We will be following the case closely.
Source: LA Times