Commonwealth v. Welansky


Defendant owned a night club and regularly inspected and maintained it.  Defendant became suddenly ill and was bed ridden in a hospital.  He maintained, however, that the club would be alright and that the premises would be kept and maintained in his absence.  Defendant’s brother and other employees maintained the same routine and work practices in his absence.  Escape through the nightclub in the event of the fire would be difficult due to the building’s layout and passageways.  There were five exits for regular patrons.  A fire broke out and many patrons and employees died in the club.  One exit door was found to be locked.


Prosecution bases its case on involuntary manslaughter through reckless or wanton conduct. Defendant convicted at trial and appellate level.


In determining manslaughter where there is a duty to patrons to protect from fire, must the prosecution prove reckless or wanton conduct?


No, judgment affirmed.  Where there is a duty of care for the safety of visitors, wanton or reckless conduct may be the result of intentional failure to afford care “in disregard of the probable harmful consequences to them or of their right to care…”  “Grave danger to others must have been apparent and the defendant must have chosen to run the risk rather than alter his conduct so as to avoid the act or omission which caused the harm”  If an ordinary and reasonable person would have realized the danger, the omission or failure to act is wanton and reckless.


Fire in a public space is always a dangerous and present possibility.  The fact that a fire occurred as the result of any cause in a public place where there is a duty to patrons is enough to convict.  Prosecution attempted to admit evidence that the electrical system in the club was defective and dangerous.  However, the prosecution cannot show that such a defect actually caused the fire.


The court argues that wanton or reckless behavior requires a degree of conduct found to be more egregious than negligent behavior.

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