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Ralph G. Eddy, of Hartford, Conn.’s Regnier, Taylor, Curran & Eddy, argued that his client owed no duty to 15-year old Ryan DiBiase, who accidentally killed himself with a pipe bomb. When Clarence Burns found his son and three other boys making amateur bombs in his Bristol, Conn., basement on Sept. 12, 1995, he was furious. He cursed and yelled at the boys to “find something else to do,” saying somebody was likely to have a hand blown off. Quickly, the four cleared out, taking a backpack that contained the copper pipe and match heads the boys used to make the explosives. They went to another one of the boys’ houses, where the parents were away. There, 15-year-old Ryan DiBiase tamped match heads into a length of 3/4-inch-diameter copper pipe, using a piece of plastic to compress the charge. It blew up in his hand and he bled to death a few hours later, in a hospital. DiBiase’s mother sued Burns on behalf of her son’s estate, alleging dual theories of ordinary negligence and negligence per se, triggered by Burns’ failure to confiscate any bomb paraphernalia and permitting the youths to “leave the premises still possessed of potentially dangerous materials.” Plainville, Conn.’s David E. Koskoff represents Shelia LaFreniere, the dead boy’s mother. He said the case tackles one of the harshest doctrines of Anglo-American law — the rule that no one has to help another person in danger. The few exceptions arise when the person has a contractual or other legal relationship with the person in danger. Now, in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, a Connecticut appellate court is being asked to decide when a person may have an affirmative duty to act to prevent horrible injury to others. Koskoff says Burns violated a 1949 statute, CGS Sec. 53-21, which says anyone who “willfully or unlawfully causes or permits any child under the age of sixteen years to be placed in such a situation that its life or limb is endangered” faces up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a $500 fine. On May 16, New Britain, Conn., Superior Court Judge Patricia A. Swords, a former state’s attorney, granted summary judgment, ruling no judge or jury could find Burns willfully caused the boy to be injured and that he had no relationship requiring him to intercede. LaFreniere is appealing the case, and Koskoff says it will be up to a higher court to determine whether the boy was unlawfully allowed to be placed in danger. Burns’ attorney advanced four arguments in favor of throwing out the case as a matter of law. The first is that Ryan DiBiase was not deliberately placed in danger or directly injured by Burns’ conduct, as required by the injury-to-a-minor law. Second, Burns owed no duty to the boy. Third, public policy would dictate against compensating DiBiase’s estate because his death resulted from the illegal activity of bomb making. Last, on civil grounds, DiBiase should not be able to recover for engaging in an ultra-hazardous activity for which he should be strictly and solely liable. Swords did not reach the intriguing third and fourth defenses in her analysis, which first found Burns did not act willfully, so that the criminal statute did not apply. She also found no negligence because the man and boy had no legal relationship that would trigger a duty: Burns was not a parent of DiBiase, nor was he in loco parentis, and had not undertaken any contractual or other relationship to look out for the well-being of the youth. The judge addressed the controversial 2000 state supreme court case of State v. Miranda, in which the boyfriend of a child-abusing mother was ruled criminally liable for failing to prevent injury to an infant. “This court recognizes that ‘[t]he trend of Anglo-American law has been toward enlarging the scope of criminal liability for failure to act in those situations in which the common law or statutes have imposed an affirmative responsibility for the safety and well-being of others,” Swords noted, quoting from the Miranda case. “Neither a reasonable interpretation of Sec. 53-21, nor the relevant case law, however, indicates that the legislature intended to create an affirmative duty to act on behalf of nonparents who do not create a familylike relationship with the injured child,” Swords held. Koskoff says Burns could have prevented the tragedy, but concedes his case arises in an emerging area of law. Eddy said that while the facts of the case are tragic, “as a lawyer, it’s a privilege to be involved in a case that’s right on the frontier like this.”

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