When Negligence = Murder: Follow-Up Report

On February 26, 2013 we posted this piece regarding an architect facing manslaughter charges arising from the death of an LA firefighter. At the time we posed this unprecedented issue: Can defective design lead to criminal liability? We’re now in a position to definitively answer that question: “yes,” given that the architect just received a one-year jail sentence.

As previously posted, the case concerns an architect/builder, Gerhard Becker, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the $11 million Hollywood home he designed and built for himself went up in flames killing a firefighter. The fire trapped several firefighters under a collapsed ceiling. A year-long investigation revealed that Becker’s grossly-negligent conduct was to blame.

Becker reportedly told city officials during an inspection of the home’s construction that he was not planning on installing any fireplaces. However, he personally installed four fireplaces inside the home after the inspections were complete. Moreover, the 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 in violation of fire codes.

According to news reports, Becker recently entered into a plea of no contest to involuntary manslaughter for the death of the fireman. As a result of the plea he was sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation. In entering the plea, Becker escaped the four-year sentence prosecutors were originally seeking.

As expected, the outcome of this case has substantial repercussions for design professionals given the potential exposure to criminal proceedings. Sure, criminal charges are not the norm in the professional malpractice context but we now have confirmed that it is a possibility in the case of gross or intentional misconduct.