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Commonwealth v. Levesque

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Levesque and Barnes (Defendants) were squatting in a vacant factory and accidentally started a fire. Defendants failed to report the fire and when the fire department eventually was alerted and responded to the fire, six firefighters were killed. The Defendants were charged with involuntary manslaughter and moved to dismiss based upon insufficient evidence. The trial court granted the motion and the Commonwealth appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A defendant who creates a life-threatening condition incurs a duty of reasonable care.

    Facts.

    Defendants were homeless and living in a vacant factory building. They accidentally started a fire when their candle tipped over. Defendants were unable to extinguish the fire, but escaped the building. Despite several opportunities to do so, defendants did not report the fire to the authorities. By the time it was reported, the fire had grown significantly. Six firefighters were killed attempting to search the building for victims and extinguish the fire. Defendants were charged with involuntary manslaughter and moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that they had no duty to report the fire and that their failure to do so was not reckless and wanton conduct as required for a manslaughter charge. The trial court granted the motion, and the Commonwealth appealed.

    Issue.

    Does a criminal defendant incur a legal duty of reasonable care when he creates a life-threatening condition?

    Held.

    (Cowin, J.) Yes. A defendant who creates a life-threatening condition incurs a duty of reasonable care. A manslaughter charge requires wanton and reckless conduct, which is usually an affirmative act. However, an omission can satisfy this requirement when the defendant has a duty to act. Generally, individuals do not have a duty to take affirmative action. When one creates a dangerous situation either intentionally or negligently, a duty to prevent harm to others arises. Certain acts must be accompanied by a warning. Here, Defendants’ actions created a dangerous situation, imposing a duty to take reasonable steps to keep others from being harmed by the dangerous situation. Although they could not extinguish the fire, Defendants could have given reasonable notice of the danger they created. Reversed and remanded.

     

    Discussion.

    The trial court originally granted the motion because the fire was started accidentally, and without a duty to report a fire, the Defendant’s actions were deemed negligent, not wanton and reckless as required for a manslaughter charge. The Massachusetts Supreme Court stated that individuals did have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent harm to others resulting from a dangerous situation they created. The failure to act, given this duty, was reckless.


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