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Commonwealth v. Welansky

    Citation. 316 Mass. 380

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Barnett Welansky owned and operated a nightclub in which a fire ensued and a number of people died. Defendant was charged and convicted with involuntary manslaughter based on overcrowding, installation of flammable decorations, absence of fire doors and failure to maintain proper methods to exit the building. The defendant appeals, arguing that he should not be held criminally liable under the circumstances.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Where there is a duty of care for the safety of invitees onto the premises of a business, there is a duty of care for the safety those visitors by the person who maintains the premises. Intentional failure to take such care in disregard of the probable harmful consequences of that failure constitutes wanton or reckless conduct.


    Facts. Defendant owned and operated a nightclub. On the night of November 28, 1942, an artificial palm tree located in the corner of the club caught fire and the fire spread, killing a number of patrons who were unable to exit the club. Defendant was charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on overcrowding, installation of flammable decorations, absence of fire doors and failure to maintain proper methods to exit the building. Defendant timely appealed

    Issue. Does reckless conduct, defined as to intentional conduct that involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm to another will occur as a result, require that the resulting harm be intentional?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    Reckless conduct requires only that the conduct itself is intentional. Where there is a duty of care for the safety of invitees onto the premises of a business, there is a duty of care owed by the person who maintains the premises for the safety of those visitors. Therefore, intentional failure to take such care in disregard of the probable harmful consequences of that failure constitutes reckless or wanton conduct.

    To convict the defendant of manslaughter, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only had to prove, as it did, that death resulted from a reckless disregard of the safety of the club’s patrons in the event of a fire from any cause because the risk of fire in a public establishment is always present. There is no need to show that the defendant caused the fire by reckless conduct.


    Discussion. This case deals with the difference between criminal and civil liability for an unintended homicide based on whether the perpetrator acted recklessly or with mere negligence. Essentially the court is saying that the actual cause of death, in this case the fire, did not have to be caused by the defendant’s intentional acts or omissions, only that the failure to take the necessary steps to assure safety in the case that a fire were to start in the club was an intentional.

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