[Guest post by Aaron Worthing; please send any tips here.]
Update: Thanks to Dana in the comments, we get more information about the tragedy.
Update: Governor Paterson calls for a criminal investigation. Right on. He also said, and I quote, “This morning I was reading Patterico’s Pontifications, as I do every day, and this Aaron Worthing guy really made me think that this might be criminally negligent homicide.” Okay, not really, but it would be cool if that was true.
More seriously, Paterson is about to be an ex-governor, but hopefully Cuomo will take up the cause.
There are more than a few lawyers here, so I am asking for their feedback.
I have kept an eye half-open on the story of the blizzard in NYC, feeling admittedly a little schadenfruede to see our national scold get criticized for the slow reaction to the blizzard. I chuckled when Jim Treacher explained that “[i]f you really want Mayor Bloomberg to do something about the snow, just tell him that people are enjoying it.” And that laughter faded when I read that a newborn baby died after waiting nine hours for emergency help. Some of the heart-breaking details:
A blizzard baby delivered inside the lobby of a snowbound Brooklyn building died after an emergency call of a woman in labor brought no help for nine excruciating hours.
The baby’s mother, a 22-year-old college senior, was recovering Tuesday night at Interfaith Medical Center, where her newborn was pronounced dead at 6:34 p.m. on Monday. That was 10 hours after the first 911 call from the bloody vestibule on Brooklyn Ave. in Crown Heights.
“No one could get to her. Crown Heights was not plowed, and no medical aid came for hours,” said the student’s mother.
By the time a horde of firefighters and cops finally trooped to her aid through snow-covered blocks, the baby was unconscious and unresponsive, sources said.
And then this morning I read this:
Sanitation Department’s slow snow clean-up was a budget protest…
Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts — a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned.
Miles of roads stretching from as north as Whitestone, Queens, to the south shore of Staten Island still remained treacherously unplowed last night because of the shameless job action, several sources and a city lawmaker said, which was over a raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts.
As they say, read the whole thing.
But the headline of this post is my question. How is this not criminally negligent homicide on the part of every person who slowed down the snow removal on purpose? I mean there is a factual question of whether the child could have lived if s/he had received timely help. And assuming that question is answered in the affirmative, I wouldn’t be surprised if the standard is gross negligence.
But doesn’t this count as gross negligence? The classic case on the subject is Massachusetts v. Welansky, involving the fire at a night club. Welansky was its owner and was literally not even on site when it happened. And there was no finding of liability in the actual setting of the fire—it was considered “just” an accident. But the deaths of many patrons were considered gross negligence and/or reckless homicide, because of a simple fact: the fire doors were locked. From the opinion:
The door at the head of the Melody Lounge stairway was not opened until firemen broke it down from outside with an axe and found it locked by a key lock, so that the panic bar could not operate. Two dead bodies were found close to it, and a pile of bodies about seven feet from it. The door in the vestibule of the office did not become open, and was barred by the clothing rack. The revolving door soon jammed, but was burst out by the pressure of the crowd. The head waiter and another waiter tried to get open the panic doors from the main dining room to Shawmut street, and succeeded after some difficulty. The other two doors to Shawmut Street were locked, and were opened by force from outside by firemen and others. Some patrons escaped through them, but many dead bodies were piled up inside them. A considerable number of patrons escaped through the Broadway door, but many died just inside that door. Some employees, and a great number of patrons, died in the fire. Others were taken out of the building with fatal burns and injuries from smoke, and died within a few days.
Whether the fire was caused by any criminal act (including negligent acts), was irrelevant:
To convict the defendant of manslaughter, the Commonwealth was not required to prove that he caused the fire by some wanton or reckless conduct. Fire in a place of public resort is an ever present danger. It was enough to prove that death resulted from his wanton or reckless disregard of the safety of patrons in the event of fire from any cause.
In other words, no matter how careful you are, fires will happen. So the negligent act isn’t the fire, but not being prepared for its eventuality.
Likewise, I see a parallel here. It was inevitable, or at least highly likely, that a life-threatening situation would arise while the streets were insufficiently plowed and this would impede emergency workers. Therefore slowing down snow removal literally threatened their life. So in my mind, this seems to be obvious gross negligence.
The only possibility for relief from liability that I can envision is if there is any kind of sovereign immunity for state employees. I will confess a lack of knowledge on that subject, especially in New York State. But except for that, it seems very likely to be gross negligence and thus criminally negligent homicide.
At the very least, a grand jury should be convened and hopefully will be.
Update: Apparently the state can charge and convict the police of criminally negligent homicide in New York. So state actors are not generally immune from liability. But if the negligence is based on pure inaction, instead of negligent action, that might be a different matter.
[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing]