Those Devoted to Saving Lives Can Be Liable When Lives Are Lost

On Dec. 19, 2006, a wildland fire supervisor employed by the U.S. Forest Service was charged with manslaughter in Washington State for the July 2001 deaths of four firefighters who were overrun by a fast moving wildfire. In California, the driver of a...


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On Dec. 19, 2006, a wildland fire supervisor employed by the U.S. Forest Service was charged with manslaughter in Washington State for the July 2001 deaths of four firefighters who were overrun by a fast moving wildfire. In California, the driver of a fire truck was charged with manslaughter when a firefighter was ejected from the apparatus and killed in a vehicle accident. In Ohio and Delaware, firefighters were charged with manslaughter when the apparatus they were driving were involved in fatal accidents with civilian vehicles.

Firefighters criminally charged with manslaughter. It sounds unbelievable and a little bit frightening that fire personnel who have devoted their lives to saving others could be charged with such a serious criminal offense for a line-of-duty action. How can this happen? Is it a new trend? Is it something you should be concerned about? To answer these questions, we must understand manslaughter. To do that, we need a brief overview of homicide law and, in particular, the four criminal mental states.

Homicide

Homicide is broadly defined as the killing of another person. The term homicide includes two primary groups of offenses, murder and manslaughter. Murder is the intentional killing of another. Most states recognize two degrees of murder, first degree and second degree. First-degree murder is a murder that is premeditated. A murder that is committed without premeditation is considered to be second-degree murder. A few states limit first-degree murder to special circumstances, such as the murder of a police officer in the line of duty. In such states, premeditated murder would be chargeable as second-degree murder.

Homicides that do not constitute murder may nevertheless be chargeable as manslaughter. There are two categories of manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing of another, committed in the heat of passion as a result of a severe provocation. The classic example of voluntary manslaughter is when a husband comes home to find another man in bed with his wife, and shoots one or both of them. It is a jury question as to whether the perpetrator acted "in the heat of passion as a result of severe provocation."

Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing that results from the reckless conduct of the defendant. (Some states recognize a type of involuntary manslaughter that arises when an unintentional death results from the commission of a misdemeanor. For example, misdemeanor manslaughter may apply when a person maliciously activates a false alarm in a building - a misdemeanor - and an occupant suffers a fatal heart attack during the evacuation. Arguably, a perpetrator who turns in a false alarm that results in a fatality could be charged with involuntary manslaughter in any state provided the act of turning in a false alarm is found to be reckless.)

It is the recklessness of the actor that makes him legally responsible for the killing despite the fact that the death was unintentional. While still a serious offense, manslaughter is not considered to be as culpable an offense as murder, and the penalties for manslaughter are not as severe as those for murder. Some states have additional categories of homicide offenses, such as vehicular homicide and negligent homicide. (Many authorities refer to involuntary manslaughter as criminally negligent homicide. However, such a definition tends to gloss over the distinction that many states make between reckless conduct and criminally negligent conduct. Historically, there has been considerable uncertainty regarding the meaning of criminal negligence, and whether it is sufficient to establish manslaughter. The more modern trend, as evidenced by the Model Penal Code, is to require recklessness be proven for involuntary manslaughter, and that criminal negligence is insufficient.) The distinction between all of the homicide crimes rests on the perpetrator's mental state when the crime was committed.

Criminal Mental States

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