The United Kingdom's Corporate Manslaughter or Corporate Homicide Act invites comparison with legal provisions in the United States in the same circumstances. As a starting point, it is instructive to remember that much of U.S. law, both statutory and case law, has its origins in English law. This certainly is understandable. When the fledgling country was establishing its legislative and judicial systems, it drew freely on the English experience, with which it was most familiar. To this day, the thread of that influence is very apparent. However, this is not to say that U.S. law always reflects English law, and the Corporate Manslaughter or Corporate Homicide Act is a case in point.
In fact, not only have we not seen criminal prosecutions of organizations in the U.S. of the type described in this edition's cover story, but criminal prosecutions of fire-service officials in instances where firefighter injuries or deaths have occurred continue to be rare. When one considers that there are about 30,000 fire departments in the U.S. and that each year there are approximately 100 line-of-duty firefighter deaths and 83,000 injuries, it is significant that there are so few criminal prosecutions. This is particularly interesting when considering that training incidents, which certainly should be the safest fireground activity of all, account for approximately 10% of the deaths and more than 7,000 of the injuries annually.
The instances where criminal liability has resulted have tended to arise primarily in the wildland-fire arena. In contrast, criminal charges related to structure fires tend to be rare and randomly scattered throughout the country. This raises a couple of important questions:
- Why do we see more criminal enforcement on wildland incidents than on structural incidents?
- Why do we see so few criminal prosecutions overall in the face of so many injuries and deaths?
Much wildland firefighting is done by the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency. After the Thirtymile Fire (see sidebar) a new federal law was enacted to specifically mandate investigations of all fatal incidents involving entrapment and burnovers of federal firefighters.
However, there is no corresponding provision for non-federal firefighters. Even if there was, most structure fires do not occur on federal land and therefore federal statutes do not apply. Instead, each of the 50 states is free to enact its own laws and the criminal prosecutors representing each of the 3,141 counties throughout these states have the discretion to make their own charging decisions. Given this structure, one must expect a wide variety of results.
Furthermore, from the point of view of a prosecutor, criminal prosecutions of persons for injuries or deaths relating to fireground activities pose difficult challenges. Such charges will be tried by a local jury, which may quite likely feel that firefighting inherently is a dangerous job and may have real sympathy for local people who are willing to accept this great responsibility. Overcoming such sympathy can be a real challenge for a prosecutor.
One area, however, where a reluctance to prosecute usually is not a factor concerns injuries or deaths that occur as a result of motor-vehicle accidents. While many prosecutors may not have an in-depth understanding of fireground activities or fire behavior, all of them have a clear understanding of the traffic laws. Consequently, criminal charges resulting from the reckless use of vehicles are quite common nationwide.
I do not believe that we are likely to see the equivalent of the United Kingdom's Corporate Manslaughter or Corporate Homicide Act in the U.S. anytime soon. However, we are likely to see:
- More criminal charges brought in the wildland arena than in the structural arena.
- More criminal charges brought for driving offenses than for judgments made on the fireground.
- More criminal charges brought relating to deaths and injuries resulting from training events than from emergency responses.
- More criminal charges brought against persons actually present on the fireground than against immediate supervisors who are not present.
Philip Stittleburg, MIFireE, is an attorney who has been chief of the La Farge (Wis.) Fire Department since 1977. He also is chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.