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 act?
      • 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 Court affirmed.
    • The Massachusetts Supreme Court found that involuntary manslaughter is for when someone acts recklessly and somebody dies as a result of that recklessness.
      • 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.
      • Therefore, intentional 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 harm.”
        • 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 criminally culpable.
    • 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.