Criminal Case Possible in Fatal Oakland Warehouse Fire

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Like a driver who staggers from a barroom into his car, or someone who drops a lighted match in a tinder-dry forest, a building owner who disregards obvious safety hazards can be held responsible in a criminal prosecution for the lethal consequences, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The events leading up to this weekend’s horrific Oakland warehouse fire appear to have been rife with warning signals: Residents jammed into a building that had permits only for industrial use. Exposed electrical wires dangling from a ceiling. Illegal generator hookups after a transformer caught fire. No sprinklers or smoke detectors. Complaints to the city that brought out an inspector, who tried to enter on Nov. 17, failed and never returned.

In such cases, said Stanford law Prof. Robert Weisberg, someone responsible for the property can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter if “a reasonable person under the circumstances would have realized there was some high probability of death.” What’s more, Weisberg said, “it’s not inconceivable that this could be a murder case,” if there was evidence that a property owner knew of the dangers and deliberately ignored them — like someone with a record of DUI convictions who causes a fatal wreck while driving drunk.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said her investigators would be looking into possible criminal charges, including murder and involuntary manslaughter, in the fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse. It is “too early to speculate” on whether anyone will be prosecuted, she said. Murder prosecutions for industrial tragedies are more common in other countries. In Bangladesh, the owner of a garment factory and 37 other people have been charged with murder, punishable by death, for the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed 1,135 workers.

 

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