Commonwealth v. Welansky
316 Mass. 383, 55 N.E.2d 902 (1944)
Welansky owned a swanky
nightclub. One night, while he was in the hospital, one of the bartenders
accidentally set the club on fire. Because of poorly marked and locked
fire exits, a number of people died in the fire.
Welansky was arrested and
charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The prosecution argued that
Welansky operated his club in a reckless manner.
The Trial Court found Welansky
guilty of involuntary manslaughter
and sentences him to 12-15 years in prison. He appealed.
Welansky argued that he
didn't intentionally kill anyone, and so should only be subject to civil
penalties, not criminal ones. In fact, he took no action at all, and how
could doing nothing be a reckless
Welansky wasn't trying to
kill anyone, and wasn't even in the club when the fire started, so how
could he be criminally liable?
The Massachusetts Supreme
The Massachusetts Supreme
Court found that involuntary manslaughter is for when someone acts recklessly and somebody dies as a result of that
This is distinguished from voluntary
manslaughter which is generally
defined as an intentional killing with legally adequate provocation.
The Court agreed that
reckless conduct usually involves an affirmative act, like driving a car too fast. However, in
this case Welansky had a duty to care for the safety of his patrons and
had control over the fire exits.
failure to take care in reckless disregard of the probable harmful
consequences rises to the level of criminal culpability.
The Court noted that there
is a difference between reckless
behavior, and negligent
behavior. Had Welansky only been negligent he would not have been criminally culpable.
"To constitute reckless conduct, as distinguished from mere negligence, 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
That's on objective
standard. It wasn't whether Welansky realized the danger, but would an
ordinary person have recognized the danger.
Welansky was usually at his
club all night, every night. Shouldn't that have been evidence that he
wasn't aware of how dangerous it was? That implies negligence, not recklessness.
Sometime the line between reckless and negligent is vague. Juries tend to decide the difference
on a case-by-case basis. This case left it unclear what the distinction
was. Part of it is going to be how much the jury feels the person deserves punishment.
Hundreds of people died, so
the public was calling for someone to go to jail. If this had just been
a small fire that only killed one or two people, perhaps Welansky would
have been found negligent and not
This case was decided prior
to the Model Penal Code.
See Model Penal Code
§210.3 and §210.4 for how it would be decided today.