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Prosecution of Hollywood architect serves as professional liability wake-up call

Prosecution of Hollywood architect serves as professional liability wake-up call

The case of an architect sentenced to prison for installing an improper fireplace in his Hollywood Hills mansion in California that led to a firefighter's death sends a professional liability warning to other architects.

While prosecutions alleging criminal negligence on the part of an architect are rare, there is nevertheless a duty of care expected of the profession.

Experts say the case is unusual in that Gerhard Becker designed and supervised construction of and lived in the 12,000-square-foot house that prosecutors said included an indoor fireplace intended only for outdoor use.

A February 2011 blaze broke out in the fireplace. Fire spread to the roof, which collapsed and killed 61-year-old Los Angeles firefighter Glenn Allen.

Prosecutors charged Mr. Becker, a German citizen whose U.S. visa reportedly had expired, with involuntary manslaughter, in part because of allegedly misleading city inspectors about the fireplace.

He pleaded no contest to the charge earlier this month and was sentenced to one year in prison. He is to be deported after he has served his sentence.


During sentencing, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry said he thought city inspectors should have discovered the construction problems before allowing the home to be occupied.

Despite objecting to the relatively light sentence, the Los Angeles Fire Department said in a statement that the sentence still “sends a clear message and warning” to those who try to circumvent building and fire codes.

Experts say they have never before heard of an architect who engaged in the activities attributed to Mr. Becker.

“It's an absolute outlier,” said Brian Sutter, a partner at Sugarman Law Firm L.L.P. in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It doesn't happen very often that there's a willful violation” involving an architect, said Brian K. Stewart, a partner at Collins, Collins Muir & Stewart L.L.P. in South Pasadena, Calif.

Experts say the case was unique in that Mr. Becker was not only the house's architect but supervised its construction and was the owner, too.

Normally, there is “lots of blame to go around,” said Karen Erger, vice president and director of practice risk management at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Kansas City, Mo.


In most cases, architects accused of wrongdoing “just made a mistake and they didn't do anything intentionally,” said Bruce R. Demeter, Exton, Pa.-based vice president and design professional division leader for OneBeacon Professional Insurance, a unit of the OneBeacon Insurance Group.

“My sense is that the system worked just as it's supposed to work in that the prosecution must have felt that his actions were criminal, rather than simply negligence,” Mr. Sutter said.

The case against Mr. Becker “goes well beyond simply a negligent design,” said James Schwartz, Boston-based U.S. architects and engineers focus group leader for Beazley P.L.C.

“This is the first time I've seen an architect get a prison sentence for doing something architectural and screwing up on it,” but “I suspect it's not going to be the last time,” said Warren Sabo, a partner at Sabo & Zahn L.L.C. in Chicago.

“It's a wake-up call,” said Reeder R. Fox, of counsel at Duane Morris L.L.P. in Philadelphia.

The case “raises the consciousness across the country” about architects' potential liability, said Thomas M. Gambardella, a partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker L.L.P. in White Plains, N.Y.


“Municipalities may be more aggressive in looking to take action against design professionals should they find activity they believe is grossly negligent and possibly equating with criminal negligence,” Mr. Gambardella said. “It's a subject that's clearly being discussed across the country.”

“I wouldn't say it's so uncommon in the construction industry to cut corners and circumvent certain guidelines, which is why there are provisions in insurance policies to protect insurers,” said Dan Gmelin, White Plains, N.Y.-based, senior vice president at Hiscox Ltd.

Policies include exclusions for malicious or illegal acts, said Robert Stanton, Chicago-based senior claim consultant with Willis North America Inc.'s construction and architects and engineers practice.

Errors and omissions insurance covers acts of negligence by architects.

“Architects, like other professionals, are held to what they call a standard of care; and when they violate that standard of care, they're subject to civil lawsuits for negligence,” said Dan Knise, president and CEO of McLean, Va.-based brokerage Ames & Gough.

Typically, however, architects do not willfully violate their standard of care, he said.


Negligence “is a real exposure. Underwriters take it very seriously,” said Paul Dietrich, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based director and chief underwriting officer with RLI Insurance Co.'s professional services group.

Mr. Sabo said the roughly 100,000 architects in the United States “are like everybody else. There's really good architects, and there are some that are really bad, and most are in the middle.

“As long as they stick to what they know and what they can research, and follow the building code minimums, and don't try to skirt the law, they're going to be OK,” he said.

“This case should at the very least serve the industry as a reminder that in performing professional services, the design professional can face criminal charges,” Mr. Demeter said.