Architect Charged With Manslaughter Over Poorly Built $11 Million Mansion

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

32 thoughts on “Architect Charged With Manslaughter Over Poorly Built $11 Million Mansion”

  1. I don’t even see how the law quoted above even applies here..This man didn’t die because an ordinary citizen failed to warn him of a potential hazard; or because some contractor shaved a few bucks off the building of a stairwell that later collapsed in a fire. He died because the cheap SOB who built this house didn’t give a rat’s ass about building codes, civil law, or basic safety. That goes way beyond any standard of reasonable care. The architect knew what he was doing when he built this fire-trap and a man died as a result. That’s criminal in my book. .

  2. Important fact missing from the summary of this case: the defendant was not only the architect; he owned the house. (Not clear from story if he was licensed to practice architecture in the US.) Read the court papers. So he had a financial incentive to cut corners, and no potential professional liability to exert cautionary influence. Assuming the prosecution’s allegations are true, the “negligence” in this case is way beyond the ordinary. He built fireplaces out of flammable materials. That’s nuts.

  3. Bettykath

    You folks for me means Americans in general. Folks that have even common characteristics with the Swedes here in Stockholm.

    We love light in our long and dark winters, so we light lots of candles and these glowing indoor fires that are claimed to require no outside venting.

    I imagined that they were popular there too.

  4. idealist707

    I thought you folks had…”

    You folks? Who are you lumping me in with?

    So he didn’t install the stove that didn’t need a vent?
    Or he was installed an indoor vent for a fireplace/stove that needed an outdoor vent but he didn’t install the stove?

  5. I wonder what I could get if I complained about my neighbors.
    One is a retired disabled waitress, the other retired through down-sizing (performance irrelevant, when you leave a market, you leave):

    Aren’t counting my skekels in advance.

    There it’s the battle of the dollars obviously.

    1. I707,

      From what I understand the offenders have offered to purchase the complainers house for market plus 500,000….. They have refused the offer…. So far they have had to pay 200,000… In the victors attorney fees…..

  6. shano,

    I have one of those fireplaces …. have used it for the last ten years on a daily basis in the winter … absolutely no problem. At the time of installation, out of an abundance of caution, we also had CO2 detectors installed … they haven’t gone off yet.

    (We live in a house well over 100 years old and in order to meet present day building standards when rebuilding the fireplace we needed to run a stainless steel vent inside the existing chimney up three stories. There was no way to rebuild the chimney’s foundation to absorb the incredible increase in weight. The ventless fireplace was the answer and took us from decorative only to fully functional.)

  7. this makes about as much sense as making it a felony for possession of a semi-automatic clip with one bullet in it….don’t need to gun or rifle…. just the clip….

    then again…. in this case building standards are in place for a reason…. public safety…..

    just read about a case where a house was not built in accordance with zoning restrictions….. 40 feet away from one property line and 28 feet on the other one…. the neighbors sued and won…. the offenders will have to demolish the 11 million dollar shack…

  8. Dredd,
    Yeah, I did pummel you more than once, exercising my opinionated side.
    So you think I’m thirsty for more punishment. As long as the rebuttals are as reasonably expressed as above, well, it’ll be cheap education.
    Until we meet again.

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