We have previously discussed the interesting case of German architect Gerhard Becker, 49, who was criminally charged for his negligent designs at a Hollywood Hills mansion, particularly a fireplace that was designed for exterior use only. The case raised the question of where we draw the line between civil and criminal liability. It now appears that that line will be drawn with Becker on the criminal side. He has reportedly decided to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. It is a case that will likely be discussed among architects and builders for years to come. However, Becker’s conduct is sufficiently extreme that it should not be taken as a criminalization of negligence in design. Yet, there is likely to be other cases where victims will demand the same criminal charges against architects in the aftermath of fires or collapses or other problems.
The plea will usually secure a sentence below the maximum for the defendant. However, this negligence resulted in the death of Los Angeles city firefighter, Glenn Allen (right above).
There was a time when such criminal charges were more common. However, they declined in the aftermath of municipal codes that specified standards and materials. This type of ad hoc or improvised design is a relic of the past.
Becker’s conduct was clearly extreme. He told a building inspector that no fireplaces would be included in the three-story, 12,000-square-foot hillside house. After the final inspection however he put in such a fireplace. He chose however a natural gas fire pit designed for outdoor use despite a sales person’s warning to him personally not to use the fireplace indoor. He also used combustible materials for the fireplace and reduced the required clearance area.
The result is that the fire spread quickly and resulted in a cave in. Three firefighters were crushed and Allen was killed.
Becker later fixed up the house and sold it for $7.55 million.
One of his defenses was that he personally stayed in the house and would not have done so if he thought the design was dangerous. This does make it different from other cases where architects simply disregard the safety of others. Here Becker clearly did not believe that there was a danger to himself.
This could be for architects a hard case making bad law if it results in greater criminalization of negligent designs. This was a pretty damning record of utter contempt for the building codes, knowing circumvention of inspectors, and the arrogant dismissal of warnings.