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Commonwealth v. Pestinikas

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendants were charged with caring for an elderly man with a disease that made it difficult for him to swallow food. Defendants kept him outside, exposed to outside weather and did not feed him. The trial court instructed the jury that Defendants could not be found guilty of a malicious killing for failing to supply food, shelter, and medicine, unless a duty to do so had been imposed upon them by contract. Defendants were convicted of third-degree murder. Defendants appealed, arguing the jury instructions were incorrect.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A failure to perform a duty imposed by a private contract may be the basis for a criminal charge.

    Facts.

    Joseph Kly met Walter and Helen Pestinikas (Defendants) when he contacted them about prearranging his funeral. Kly was living with his stepson and was later hospitalized and diagnosed with a disease that made it difficult for him to swallow food. When he was discharged, Kly said he did not want to return to his stepson’s home, and arrangements were instead made for Defendants to care for Kly in their home. On the day of Kly’s discharge, Defendants were given care instructions and a prescription to fill for Kly. Defendants orally agreed to follow the instructions and provide Kly with food, shelter, care, and the required medicine. According to the evidence at trial, the prescription was never filled. Instead of allowing Kly to live in their home, Defendants placed him in a small, enclosed porch of a distant building, where there was no insulation or bathroom and he was exposed to outside weather conditions. Defendants took Kly to the bank where they had their names added to his account. Over time, Defendants withdrew over $30,000 from the account. About two years after Kly’s discharge from the hospital, he was found dead, and an autopsy revealed starvation and dehydration as the causes of death. Defendants were charged with murder, and at trial, the judge instructed the jury that Defendants could not be found guilty of a malicious killing for failing to supply food, shelter, and medicine, unless a duty to do so had been imposed upon them by contract. The jury charge was based on a state statute, 18 Pa.C.S. § 301(b), which states that liability may not be based on an omission unless the omission is sufficient as defined by the criminal statute or a duty to perform the omitted act was “otherwise imposed by law.” The jury found Defendants guilty of third-degree murder. Defendants appealed, arguing that the jury instructions were incorrect.

    Issue.

    Whether a failure to perform a duty imposed by a private contract may be the basis for a criminal charge.

    Held.

    Yes. The convictions are affirmed. A failure to perform a duty imposed by a private contract may be the basis for a criminal charge.

    Dissent.

    The jury instructions stating that the failure to perform a civil contract is enough, by itself, to meet the requirements of the criminal statute were improper. In referencing a duty otherwise “imposed by law” in the statute, it is more likely that the legislature intended the phrase to refer to duties explicitly imposed by other statutes or regulations, not duties taken on voluntarily through private contracts.

    Discussion.

    An omission to act may support a criminal prosecution if 1) such a failure causes the death of another person and 2) all other elements of the offense are satisfied. It is clear that when a duty is imposed by law, and a statute makes an omission to perform a legal duty sufficient for criminal liability, there was a purposeful distinction between a legal duty to take affirmative action and a mere moral duty to act. A contractual duty to act is legally enforceable and therefore forms a legal duty. As a result, failing to perform a duty undertaken in a contract may properly support a criminal murder charge. However, the omission to act must also be joined by the requisite mens rea. In the absence of malicious intent, an omission to perform private contractual duties will not suffice for a murder conviction. Here, there was evidence that Kly’s death had been caused by Defendants’ failure to provide food and medical care, which they had agreed to do by oral contract with hospital personnel. If the jury found that Defendants maliciously deprived Kly of required food and care, a murder conviction would be appropriate. Therefore, Defendants’ omission to act was sufficient to support a conviction for murder, and the trial court’s jury instructions were correct.


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