January 3, 2014

"Architect expected to plead guilty to causing firefighter's death."

"Gerhard Becker... built long, natural-gas fire pits meant for outdoor use into the interior of his home."
He’s accused of gross negligence for building the frame of the fireplaces with combustible materials, instead of materials such as brick, and for not building any firebreaks inside the walls. Unchecked by firebreaks, the flames rocketed up to the attic. The ceiling eventually collapsed....

"This type of improvisation and casual design is a relic of the past," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.... Tragedies are often followed by demands for prosecution and those demands are likely to be tied to this case as precedent... In that way, this could be an example of a hard case making bad law for architects in the future."
Why is this a hard case, and what's the bad law?

33 comments:

Cedarford said...

It may not be that hard a case. The architect, who knew better, engaged in multiple code violations. That assumed "expertise" given his status as a licensed architect makes the negligence egregious and willful. It resulted in the death of someone.

It is similar to prosecuting (and this as been done) engineers that bypassed code in building a bridge or a deepwater rig that later failed, and killed some other people.

sojerofgod said...

I don't think it is a hard case, he broke the laws covering building codes and created an obvious fire hazard. Someone got killed due to his actions. Would this be any different from being the driver of a getaway car in a robbery where an innocent bystander was killed? He broke a law that directly lead to the death. Pretty clear cut. Hubris!

DKWalser said...

It's bad law because we shouldn't criminalize stupidity. We are becoming too divorced from the concept of mens rea. Holding someone civilly responsible for the harm caused by his or her negligence is sufficient deterrent. Arming prosecutors with ability to send people to jail in such cases will not materially reduce the harms from negligence, but it will create opportunities for mischief and injustice.

Big Mike said...

I don't understand LA's home inspection system. Is it not the case that a city inspector has to inspect the home and issue a certificate of occupancy before a person can begin living there?

Did the inspector fail to do his job because of the presumed expertise of the architect and a willingness to believe verbal assurances? Or did the architect move in without a certificate of occupancy?

Lots of details missing from this story, including the key one: has Whoppi Goldberg weighed in on whether it was a "death death"?

Carol said...

Yeah code violations shouldn't result in a max criminal sentence. Is it even a misdemeanor? Usually it's just something that hangs up sale of the house later until addressed by the owner.

A winning civil case against the architect by the firefighter's family, for sure. But the city is hell bent on making an example of the the guy and that can set a bad precedent.

Ann Althouse said...

Why is he pleading guilty?

Hagar said...

The peculiar fireplace installation was made after the place had been inspected and certified fit for occupancy.

This is not just stupidity by a home-owner, It is willful malpractice by a professional, who is presumed to know better.

Hagar said...

I think I remember a case where a structural engineer was convicted of manslaughter for approving the steel manufacturer's shop drawings without properly checking them first, i.e sloth in performing professional duties.

Constructing this "fireplace(s)" as described goes beyond just sloth.

cubanbob said...

Ann Althouse said...
Why is he pleading guilty?

1/3/14, 11:23 AM

Perhaps because he is guilty and wants to avoid a trial and a hasher sentence.


DKWalser said...
It's bad law because we shouldn't criminalize stupidity. We are becoming too divorced from the concept of mens rea. Holding someone civilly responsible for the harm caused by his or her negligence is sufficient deterrent. Arming prosecutors with ability to send people to jail in such cases will not materially reduce the harms from negligence, but it will create opportunities for mischief and injustice.

1/3/14, 10:58 AM

The guy is an architect which implies he is an expert in designing buildings not some ignorant DYI home improvement guy. He was recklessly endangering peoples lives. Suppose he had sold the house and a fire happened while the new owners were asleep and were killed. His intentionally flawed design would have gotten charged as well.

Larry J said...

DKWalser said...
It's bad law because we shouldn't criminalize stupidity.


Actually, there are many stupid acts that can be punished criminally. It's very stupid to drive under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Do it can you can get arrested for DUI (or DWI depending on your state). If you kill someone while driving DUI, you can also get prosecuted for vehicular homocide. Likewise, it'd be completely stupid to fire a gun in the general direction of a crowd. Just because you weren't aiming at anyone, it doesn't excuse you from the criminal legal consequences of stupidity.

traditionalguy said...

It is Involuntary Manslaughter. He caused a death by doing a prohibited action without intending that act to cause the death of that person. But he was so grossly negligent that it evidenced no care that his acts would likely kill people.

It was like Hillary Clinton's acts at Benghazi. That's why she is covering up so hard.

BarrySanders20 said...

He's pleading guilty because his lawyer has already worked out a deal where he will be sentenced to no jail time but agrees to leave the country.

Was it foreseeable that the ceiling would fall on firefighters if his non-code fireplace malfunctioned? Would fire breaks have prevented the ceiling collapse?

I guess he thinks so because he's pleading guilty.

rehajm said...

When he added the firepits after the final inspection, was he still acting in his professional capacity as an architect or as a reckless homeowner? If he's found professionally liable do we create messy case law with the potential to hold architects liable for the actions of their clients?

Sigivald said...

Traditionalguy said: But he was so grossly negligent that it evidenced no care that his acts would likely kill people

"would likely kill people", eh?

You seem to be asserting that he knew it was "likely" to kill people - and yet he was living in that house, and more or less pure luck woke him up before the fire killed HIM.

Seems to me that he had no idea that it would "likely kill people", or he wouldn't have done it in his own house.

And if we eliminate the idea that he knew it was likely to do that, we lose any serious - especially criminal - culpability.

(This is the equal argument against Larry J's "firing a gun into a crowd" argument: it's impossible to do that without knowing that someone is likely to be injured or killed*.)

(* Assuming the person so doing knows there's a crowd, which is the only fair way to interpret the example, and assuming that the person equally knows how a gun works and what happens when people are shot.

The better example for this guy would be "someone firing up into the air in a place he thought nobody was near, and managing to have a bullet fall and kill someone" - it might be negligent, but not nearly the same way as just shooting into a crowd of people with the non-excuse of "not aiming at anyone".

If Mr. Architect thought he was making any risks at all with his fireplace installation, he presumably thought he was endangering himself, not effectively shooting at firefighters**.

Bad analogies make for bad conclusions.

** And the other problem with negligent manslaughter prosecutions for a fire that kills a firefighter, is that it doesn't end with bad fireplace installations.

Burn a candle improperly, burn your house down, and it kills a firefighter? Hey, you can go to prison because you shouldn't have been burning that candle like that!

What's the difference? No meaningful one I can see.)

PB Reader said...

"improvisation and casual design" should be constrained to the legal profession and political policy arena where they can do damage on a vastly larger scale.

William R. Hamblen said...

This is an example of the sad fact that some architects know little and care less about fire safety. Residential building code enforcement for single family structures is next to non-existent in most jurisdictions.

John Vaci said...

Most of the licensing regulations in the 20 states in which I am licensed are watered down by nature of the fact that the registration board is populated by architects who are more interested in making sure those practicing these dark arts are in fact certified to minimum standards. As a fish swimming in these waters I am here to tell you there is a lot of chum in those waters.

Hard case?....no way. He will be held to a higher standard of knowledge so in fact the willful negligence bar will be lowered for felony manslaughter making it an easy case for those who believe that negligence is the case. As for "bad law", nonsense, we need every protection available from bad actors who intentionally endanger us.

DKWalser said...

Actually, there are many stupid acts that can be punished criminally....

Very true. It's also true that most of those laws are bad policy. I support criminal penalties for DUI convictions, but that doesn't violate the mens rea rule. Even a drunk knows that driving drunk is against the criminal law.

In this case, since the architect lived in the house, I doubt that he knew how dangerous the fireplace was. I doubt he had the requisite knowledge and intent to harm anyone.

Perhaps another example will better illustrate my concern: Years ago a mom left her child in the car while she ran into a convenience store to pay for gas. She also left her keys in the car. While she waited in line to pay for gas, the car was stolen. She was prosecuted for child endangerment. Leaving her keys and child in the car was stupid; it shouldn't be considered criminal.

We are criminalizing too many things. We are imposing standards of strict liability and enforcing those standards with jail time. I do not want to be held to those standards (I'm too often an absent-minded professor type) and I refuse to impose them on others.

SJ said...

@Ann,

who did the construction work on the not-up-to-code fireplace?

For several reasons, it is easier to modify an existing home without permit/inspection process than building a new building without a permit/inspection.

However, any contractor doing the work of installing a fireplace would have been smart to force an inspection, and note such on any contract presented to the homeowner and/or architect.

Unless the contractor wasn't a fully-licensed-and-insured contractor...

I've got lots of questions about the case, and the news article leaves most of them unanswered.

John Vaci said...

He plead the case because they have him dead to rights knowingly violating the law. Building codes are laws. And, knowingly covering up the violation to circumvent code (law) enforcement.

And now someone is dead and others are injured as a direct result.

rehajm said...

If he's found professionally liable do we create messy case law with the potential to hold architects liable for the actions of their clients?

Or hold them professionally liable for their personal actions?

DKWalser said...

...As for "bad law", nonsense, we need every protection available from bad actors who intentionally endanger us.

Our disagreement is over the meaning of the word "intentionally". If you can show that he intended to harm anyone (that is, it was his "purpose" to harm), I'm all in favor of criminal punishment. You build the scaffold and I'll bring the rope. However, since he built the fireplace for his own use, I don't think you can prove that he intended harm to anyone.

David said...

I have no idea.

Unknown said...

not building something to code is now criminal manslaughter. crazy

Ralph Hyatt said...

"Our disagreement is over the meaning of the word "intentionally". If you can show that he intended to harm anyone (that is, it was his "purpose" to harm), I'm all in favor of criminal punishment."

He intentionally circumvented building codes intended to prevent people being harmed.

That's the mens rea right there. He knew that he was violating building codes.

And someone was killed because he did so.

Saying he didn't mean to harm anyone is analogous to me doing 150 in a school zone while children are crossing the street.

I didn't mean to run over any kids, I was just trying to get home a few minutes quicker.

Michael said...

Building codes. Inspectors. Permits. Licensed trades. In building any kind of edifice these things come into play and subject the unobservant to the force of the law. And litigants.

Larry J said...

In this case, since the architect lived in the house, I doubt that he knew how dangerous the fireplace was. I doubt he had the requisite knowledge and intent to harm anyone.

Perhaps another example will better illustrate my concern: Years ago a mom left her child in the car while she ran into a convenience store to pay for gas. She also left her keys in the car. While she waited in line to pay for gas, the car was stolen. She was prosecuted for child endangerment. Leaving her keys and child in the car was stupid; it shouldn't be considered criminal.


There's a vast difference between a lay person (the Mom in your example) being stupid about something and a licensed professional. An architect requires a great deal of training and education. Even back in the 1970s, it took five years to get a degree in architecture. If he was stupid about something out of his field of expertise (say auto repairs), that would be a different matter. Installing a fireplace in a house is within an architect's area of training. Perhaps he'd never worked on residential construction, but that doesn't excuse him from doing such an incredibly stupid job of it. It'd be different if he was Joe Handyman. We expect more from a professional architect. His stupidity got someone killed.

Jupiter said...

"Building codes are laws. And, knowingly covering up the violation to circumvent code (law) enforcement."

Yes, building codes are laws, and in some cases, very bad laws. They are written by the people who manufacture building materials, to make their competitors' products illegal. Then they are rubber-stamped by ignorant municipal authorities.

traditionalguy said...

@Sigivald....This guy showed a lack of care that his act would likely kill another. That is true whether or not he was joining the endangered group of "persons" likely to be killed.

John Vaci said...

It is against the law to discharge a firearm in most civilized populated areas. Now I decide to celebrate universal health finally realized for every American and I discharge my gun in the air but the bullet drops on another reveler and kills them. I'm in trouble...big trouble, I knew the gun was dangerous and now I'm in for a long ride down the river. Had the bullet missed but I was caught? Probably get a fine and gun confiscated. Same deal, I broke a law designed to protect innocent life.

ironrailsironweights said...

The architect is being prosecuted only because it was a firewhiner who died.

Peter

Unknown said...

Next thing you know we'll be prosecuting scientists for not correctly predicting earthquakes.

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