The Los Angeles Times reported that fire safety expert Dale Feb is expected to testify at a preliminary hearing in the criminal case against forty eight year old Gerhard Becker, a German national and architect, who has been charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of forty-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, Glenn Allen. Becker stands accused of negligently installing fireplaces designed for outdoor use inside his Hollywood Hills mansion that caused a massive fire at the residence.
Over eighty LAFD firefighters responded to the blaze on the night of February 16, 2011, with nineteen becoming trapped as it spread throughout the home. As the fire progressed, the ceiling collapsed, dumping hundreds of pounds of plaster and lumber on Allen. Other firefighters immediately came to Allen's aid, using chainsaws to dig him out, however, he was not breathing by the time he was rescued. Allen was resuscitated at the scene and rushed to a nearby hospital, but died two days later.
Fire inspectors discovered that Becker had installed four outdoor fireplaces inside his home after its final inspection that allegedly lacked required firebreaks to stop flames from spreading out and were constructed with combustible materials. According to a search warrant drafted by Los Angeles Police Detective Gregory Stearns, "If these fireplaces were present at final inspection of the residence, the inspection would not have been approved. As constructed and installed, they constitute a present, extreme, immediate and imminent hazard."
In California, involuntary manslaughter is defined by Penal Code Section 192(b) as an unlawful killing of a human being "in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection."
An "unlawful act" is either a misdemeanor or an infraction, and is not necessarily something that is inherently dangerous. An act performed "without due caution and circumspection" is essentially the same thing as criminal negligence, i.e. an act which is "aggravated, reckless and flagrant and which is such a departure from what would be the conduct of an ordinary prudent, careful person under the same circumstances as to be in disregard for human life, or an indifference to the consequences of such an act." Involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
As this case shows, while rare, these criminal charges can be filed even in unique cases like this one. However, those charged often have very strong legal defenses--merely making a mistake is not always enough to be convicted of a crime.