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Breaking Legal Developments

04-09-2001

Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor
palynch@cozen.com
http://www.cozen.com

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. California Court Finds Stripped Mobile Home Sufficient to Support Arson of Structure
  2. Louisiana Court Finds Power District Did Not Cause Flash Fire


(1) CALIFORNIA COURT FINDS STRIPPED MOBILE HOME SUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT ARSON OF STRUCTURE

In People v. Labaer, No. D034632 (April 5, 2001), the California Fourth Appellate District reviewed the defendant's arson conviction. A jury convicted Gary Labaer of arson of a structure, arson of the property of another, two counts of battery upon a police officer, and resisting an executive officer. (Pen. Code, 451, subds. (c) & (d); 243, subd. (b); 69.) The court sentenced Labaer to prison for four years on the arson of a structure count, and imposed a five-year probation term for the battery convictions. Labaer appealed.

Labaer owned a double-wide mobile home that he kept at RV World, a storage facility. Although the storage contract did not allow him to do so, he frequently stayed in the mobile home. After Labaer repeatedly failed to pay monthly storage fees, a court declared the mobile home abandoned and permitted sale of the home and its contents. Immediately before the public auction began, the auctioneer saw Labaer and several other men disassemble parts of the mobile home. The men removed trusses from the roof, aluminum siding panels, and sliding glass doors, and loaded the parts on a truck. The auctioneer called the sheriffs department, and sheriff's deputies arrested Labaer on unrelated misdemeanor warrants. While waiting in court, Labaer referred to the mobile home and said, "I should just burn the damn thing down." Labaer was later released from custody.

At the auction held later that day, RV World, the only bidder, purchased Labaer's mobile home for $100. The next day, Jeffrey Funk, manager of a nearby nursery, noticed the mobile home on fire and saw Labaer backing away from the southeast portion. When Deputy Sheriff Roderick MacDonald arrived, Funk identified Labaer as the person who was near the mobile home when the fire started. Labaer interfered with Deputy MacDonald's investigation of the fire by being hostile and slapping Deputy MacDonald's hand when the deputy reached for Labaer's jacket. When Deputy Sheriff Jonda Hammons directed Labaer to the patrol car, Labaer began pushing and hitting her. After witnessing this and receiving punches from Labaer, Deputy MacDonald placed Labaer in a carotid restraint hold and handcuffed him.

The jury found Labaer guilty of arson of a structure ( 451, subd. (c)), arson of property of another ( 451, subd. (d)), two counts of battery upon Deputies MacDonald and Hammons ( 243, subd. (b)), and resisting an executive officer ( 69).

On this factual record, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude this partly disassembled mobile home was a "structure" within the meaning of section 451, subdivision (c). To constitute a "structure," the statute does not require a finished or completed building. Although there was conflicting testimony, the jury was entitled to find the testimony credible that the mobile home had four sides and one-half of a roof, and that the building would provide shelter from the elements. Viewed from this perspective, the mobile home certainly was a "building," rather than razed property. Further, although in its partially disassembled state the mobile home may not have been appropriate for habitation, the subdivision does not require a building be inhabited or be capable of being inhabited before it may constitute a structure. (Compare 451, subd. (b) with 451, subd. (c).)

Although there are no California reported cases on the meaning of a "building" for purposes of the arson statutes, decisions in other states support our conclusion. For example, in one Maryland case, the subject of the arson was "a 20-year-old shell of an unused clubhouse, primarily of '[s]teel skeleton construction with a frame flooring interior and bearing walls with a built up roof.' The windows . . . had been removed or broken, utilities had been turned off, copper piping removed and the interior severely vandalized." (Brown v. State (1978) 388 A.2d 130, 133, reversed on other grounds in Brown v. State (1979) 403 A.2d 788.) Notwithstanding the run-down condition of the clubhouse, the court rejected the defendant's argument the property was not a "building" as used in the Maryland arson statute. (Id. at pp. 133-135.) The court reasoned that "[d]ilapidated or not, used or unused, the 'clubhouse' still stood, and the evidence further demonstrated that its steel-framed walls and roof had, just months prior to the burning, been used for the storage of various persons' property. Such standing structures fall under the protection of our statute, and their unlawful burning is proscribed despite their present, past or future purpose. If the Legislature intended to restrict the protection of buildings to those 'in use' or those with a contemporaneous intended use, it could more easily have added such clarifying words than can we in retrospect, and with far more right to have done so." His arson conviction was affirmed.


(2) LOUISIANA COURT FINDS POWER DISTRICT DID NOT CAUSE FLASH FIRE

In Perkins v. Entergy, et al., No. 00-C-1372, (Mar. 30, 2001)(PDF viewer needed), the Supreme Court of Louisiana reviewed a finding the plaintiff had not met its burden of proof in a wrongful death and burn case. The trial court had found for the plaintiff's awarding over $22,000,000.00 in damages which had been reversed by the Court of Appeals.

A static wire, suspended above three transmission conductors at a refinery broke as a result of a ten knot wind and fell on the transmission wires below it. Prior to its breaking, the static shield wire was improperly held together with only one of its original seven strands. The initial breakage of the shield wire caused a circuit breaker to open the line, producing an "A phase to ground" fault or a fault in the uppermost wire. A voltage sag caused the facility's major equipment to automatically shut down. The protective devices shut all of the four of the facility's air compressor motors automatically. The three plaintiffs proceeded to the let down station to close a manual bloc valve located near the automatic valve. As they were attempting to discover the source of the problem with the automatic valve, a large flash fire occurred killing one and injury two others.

The plaintiff's claimed the power shut down led to the ultimate explosion. Specifically, they claimed a violent shut down occurred which loosened debris into the piping system causing the flash fire. However, they had to show the defendant's conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm.

The plaintiff's case failed because they alleged a voltage sag might have caused a violent shut down, which might have caused particulate matter to loosen, which might have been a contributing factor to the ignition. They needed to prove it was more likely than not that the voltage sag caused an unusual amount of turbulence at the plant, which in turn, caused debris in the system to loosen and be transported to the valve causing the fire. They did not and the reversal of the trial judge was affirmed.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), palynch@cozen.com (e-mail), http://www.cozen.com, emergency loss assistance - pager (619) 333-2713.

Please direct comments, suggestions, stories, and other items to the author by e-mail at palynch@cozen.com

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