In March of 2012 we wrote about the case where Los Angeles officials brought involuntary manslaughter charges against an architect for the installation and construction of fireplaces that did not meet building codes. The fireplace, which was manufactured for outdoor use, was allegedly built into the house with wood framing and combustible drywall normally used for standard walls, which caused a fire. While combating the blaze a firefighter was killed when the ceiling collapsed. At the time of our initial post, the architect was facing criminal charges for failing to meet minimum standards which resulted in a loss of human life; however, those charges had yet to be proven in court. Earlier this month the architect pleaded no contest to the involuntary manslaughter charge, and he was sentenced to one year in prison. In addition, since he is a German national who stayed in the US on an expired visa, he will be deported when released. While the L.A. Fire Department objects to the relatively light sentence, they do feel that it sends a clear message to those who “try to circumvent building and fire codes.”
This case was somewhat exceptional because of the level of responsibility that was solely the architect’s. In addition to serving as the architect, the defendant was the owner of the home and supervised construction. In court, it appears that the prosecution felt that the architect’s actions went beyond just negligence and crossed over into criminal activity. This case should serve as a wakeup call that it is possible for design professionals to be held criminally responsible when their behavior is grossly negligent in a way that may equate with criminal negligence.