Could Failing to Prevent a Fatal Overdose Be Considered Manslaughter?
In March 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that the son of the Pepperdine University president was to be charged with felony manslaughter. The charges arose from the death of the young man’s friend from an apparent heroin overdose.
“There have been recent cases in California in which failing to prevent a fatal overdose was considered manslaughter,” explained wrongful death lawyer James Ballidis.
In April 2012, a 25-year-old graphic designer named Katie Wilkins allegedly got into a car with Christopher Benton, the son of the president of Pepperdine University. Several hours later, Wilkins’ brother found her in her parents’ Malibu garage. She was dead, apparently as a result of a heroin overdose, and her car had been left in Woodland Hills.
Following an investigation, Los Angeles County authorities indicated that they would be pursuing felony manslaughter charges against Benton for his role in Wilkins’ death. Benton was the last person to see Wilkins alive. The Malibu Times reported Detective Tim O’Quinn’s statement that Benton was aware of what the “end result was most likely to be when he left Katie incapacitated and alone on the garage floor, with a telephone only a few feet away.”
Benton has a criminal history as well as a history with drugs. He was convicted in the past of felony possession of a controlled substance, and arrested for grand theft and possession of marijuana with intent to sell. His parents indicated that his drug problems began when he was an early teen. They have tried numerous times to help him with no lasting success.
The Criminal Charges
California defines involuntary manslaughter in Penal Code section 192(b) as an unlawful killing that occurs:
1. During the commission of an illegal act (that is not a felony) or
2. While engaged in a lawful act that involves a high risk of death or great bodily harm that is committed without due caution or circumspection.
Under the legal definition, giving someone drugs could potentially be considered an illegal non-felony act that makes someone liable for manslaughter. Under California law, defendants have been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the past for providing drugs to friends.
However, there is no proof that Benton administered or provided the heroin to Wilkins. According to The Malibu Times, police had previously stated that no charges could be filed for manslaughter against Benton without proof he had administered the deadly heroin dose. When asked if there was any evidence of this now that charges are being considered, Detective O’Quinn said he still had no evidence that Benton had provided Wilkins with the drugs.
Without this evidence, there is nothing to indicate that Wilkins’ death can be tied to Benton’s commission of an illegal act since his failure to provide her with help cannot necessarily be considered an illegal act.
There are no general duty-to-aid laws in California, which means that it is not necessarily illegal to fail to help someone who has overdosed on drugs. In fact, so many people fail to render aid in overdose situations that lawmakers actually passed a bill to try to encourage reporting. In January 2013, the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Law went into effect in California. This law provides limited protection from arrest and prosecution for people who report drug overdoses. The goal of this law is to prevent situations where people would be afraid to call the police when someone was overdosing out of fear of being arrested.
Whether Benton’s failure makes him liable for Wilkins’ death will depend upon whether he was considered unreasonably negligent in engaging in behavior that had a high risk of death. The fact that he left Wilkins alone on the floor, knowing she was high and with a phone just a few feet away, may rise to the level of criminal negligence.
Detective O’Quinn indicated that he believes Benton’s behavior is criminal despite an absence of evidence because recent case law indicated that someone present during a heroin overdose could be responsible for the death of the person.
One recent case has similar facts and resulted in a defendant being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. According to The Monterey County Herald, a Paradise man was convicted of involuntary manslaughter because he offered a girl methadone pills, Vicodin and alcohol and then failed to call 911 when she suffered an overdose.
According to the prosecutor in that case, there was no evidence that the defendant intended to hurt the victim or to cause her death, but the defendant could have saved the victim if he had called 911. Instead, he left the woman alone in her bed in her apartment and went to buy donuts.
While there is no proof that Benton gave Wilkins the drugs, the other facts are similar to the Paradise man’s case in that Benton left Wilkins alone and in need of aid. Thus, while Benton’s lawyer argues that the facts don’t support the charges, there is potential precedent to suggest that the young man could still be held liable for the death.
If Benton were to be found responsible for Wilkins’ death in a criminal case, her family would also have the option of pursuing a civil claim against him for wrongful death.
Additional articles on the civil claims process are available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California wrongful death lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.