Architect Facing Manslaughter for LAFD LODD

Today’s Burning Question: I was responsible for installing an outdoor fireplace at house in Hollywood that was going to be used in a television show and…. well… we took some shortcuts in how we built it. The biggest issue was that it was made out of wood and we kind of didn’t tell the local building officials. So then there was this fire and a firefighter died. Could I get in trouble? After all, the fire was an accident, wasn’t it?

Answer: The fire may have been an accident, but if your conduct in installing the wooden fireplace was reckless, you may find yourself facing involuntary manslaughter charges.

A German architect, Gerhard Becker, is facing involuntary manslaughter charges for his role in installing a wooden outdoor fireplace that sparked a major fire in Hollywood Hills on February 16, 2011 that claimed the life of LA firefighter Glenn Allen.

The LA Times has a great piece on the fire and the case. My point with this posting is to remind everyone about the relevant grounds for manslaughter, and the importance of understanding the mental state of recklessness.

Let’s face it – what we do carries with it the risk of death at every turn. We are not like librarians or school teacher or accountants. People are killed and injured and property is damaged even on a good day at the office for us. When a death occurs, manslaughter is potentially on the table.

Essentially “recklessness” is a criminal mental state that involves acting with conscious disregard for a known and substantial risk of harm. When someone acts with recklessness, and that act is the proximate cause of a death, he/she has committed involuntary manslaughter.

Thus in the LA case, if the prosecutors can convince a jury that Becker consciously disregarded a known and substantial risk of harm by installing the wooden fire place AND that the installation was the proximate cause of FF Allen’s death, he could be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Engineers and architects can create great things. They also have the ability to wreck great havoc. Although this case seems harsh, it is not like the guy made a good faith error. The intentional and obvious deviation from the plans could be a deviation from the standard of care that created an unreasonable risk. I am curious how this will play out in court.

  • Andrew

    Umm, making a fireplace of wood? And wondering why it burned?!?

    I’d say someone needs a time out… like 15 years in the slammer.

    Maybe then we won’t have this kind of thing happening.

  • Pingback: Why is it Homicide when it was just and accident? - Doctor CSI()

  • ukfbbuff

    Since this issue affects me and my fellow firefighters in California, the outcome
    of this case will be followed closely.

    I hope he gets convicted.


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