When Negligence = Murder: Building Defects Result in Manslaughter Charges

An architect faces criminal manslaughter charges arising from the death of an LA firefighter who died attempting to control a blaze that engulfed the defendant architect’s multi-million dollar home.  This case raises an unprecedented issue: Can defective design lead to criminal liability?  Apparently, the answer is “yes” if the defect is the result of gross negligence.

 A judge recently ruled that an architect/builder, Gerhard Becker, will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter after the home he designed and built went up in flames killing a firefighter. According to various news reports, a fire in Becker’s $11 million Hollywood home trapped several firefighters under a collapsed ceiling. The Los Angeles Superior Court’s order came after a year-long investigation revealed that grossly negligent conduct was to blame.

According to court documents, Becker told city officials during an inspection of the home’s construction that he was not planning on installing any fireplaces in the home.  However, Becker allegedly personally installed four outdoor fireplaces inside the home after the inspections were complete.  Becker’s fireplaces were not installed with the required incombustible materials (i.e. brick or stone), fire resistant liners or appropriate ventilation to remove heat and ash from the interior of the home. Instead, Becker installed the fireplaces with wood framing and combustible drywall.  Becker’s construction violated fire codes.  He is also accused of altering his home after construction.  Becker has pled not guilty to all charges.

This may be the first time that the prosecution has relied upon building defects to support a finding of criminal negligence.  The outcome of these proceedings will have substantial repercussions for design professionals.