Commonwealth v. Feinberg

The Facts

Defendant sold “Sterno” from his cigar store in Philadelphia.  Sterno is a substances made mostly from methanol and ethanol, designed for cooking and heating.  Methanol is more toxic if consumed internally.  New sterno with a higher grade of ethanol was eventually produced with the words “Institutional Sterno. Danger.  Poison.  For use only as a fuel.  Not for consumer use.  For industrial and commercial use.  Not for home use.”  Defendant received the new type of sterno and sold approximately 400 cans of the new variety.  Defendant was the only person to which the new variety of sterno was sold.  Shortly after the sale, approximately 31 people died in the skid-row area as a result of methanol poisoning, which was directly traceable to the sale of new sterno.

Procedural History

Defendant was arrested and convicted at trial on seventeen counts of manslaughter.

The Issue

Whether defendant is guilty of involuntary manslaughter where his sale of the new variety of sterno consisted of death “happening in consequences of an unlawful act, or the doing of a lawful act in an unlawful way.”

The Holding and Rule

When death results from doing an act that is lawful itself, in this case the sale of sterno, in an unlawful way, the prosecution must present evidence to prove that the defendant acted in a “rash and reckless manner.”  The behavior must be a “departure from the behavior of an ordinary and prudent man as to evidence a disregard of human life or an indifference to the consequences … there must be a direct causal relationship between the defendant’s act and the deceased’s death.”

Prosecution has satisfied all elements necessary for conviction.  Defendant sold sterno with the knowledge that at least some of his customers use it to drink as alcohol.  Other witnesses as trial testified that the defendant asked some customers to conceal the sterno when the leaving the store.  Defendant was or should have been aware that the product he was selling was toxic if it were consumed because the new variety is clearly labeled so.  Further evidence suggests that defendant attempted to cover up his sale and purchase of sterno from a local wholesaler upon learning of the initial deaths.


Conviction affirmed.

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