Tracing the Concept of Criminal Negligence Through the Beirut Blast

On 4th August 2020, Lebanon experienced a catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut. President Michel Aoun said that the blast may have been caused due to the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which was stored unsafely in a warehouse. Ammonium nitrate is an inflammable material used in fertilisers and in explosives. The ammonium nitrate arrived on a ship called the Rhosus while it was en-route from Georgia to Mozambique. Due to technical problems, the ship made an unwarranted stop at Beirut after which it wasn’t allowed to sail again as it got embroiled in a legal dispute over port fees. The captain and the crew of the ship ultimately left Beirut after various failed attempts to resolve it. Lebanese authorities unloaded and stored the dangerous substance in a warehouse at the port while the ship Rhosus ultimately sank. 

Criminal Negligence and its Role in the Beirut Blast

Criminal negligence is different from the general concept of negligence. It refers to conduct in which a person willfully ignores an obvious risk and disregards the safety of others, thereby indicating disregard of a legal duty. In acts of criminal negligence, the accused is indifferent to the consequences of an act or omission which is foreseeable by any reasonable person, and hence does not conform with the standard of care prescribed by law. Criminal negligence will apply when someone is grossly unsuccessful in living up to their duties that ultimately result in injury or loss to another party. 

In the case of the Beirut blast, the presence of the highly explosive substance in unsafe conditions combined with inappropriate climatic conditions led to the detonation of the material that caused the blast. It is pertinent to note that the authorities were well aware of the existence of the explosive substance but failed to take any action to avoid the (un)foreseen circumstances. This is evidenced by the fact that customs officials wrote to the courts on various occasions regarding the dispensation of the hazardous material and to warn them about the danger that it posed. However, no adequate safety measures were taken and the authorities made no attempt to prevent such a disaster from taking place. These grave omissions involve the responsibility of the government and the authorized persons.

Therefore, even after being reasonably informed about the presence of large amounts of hazardous material, it is the inaction that followed, which implied not only negligence but criminal negligence by the state authorities/government and officials.

In the case of People v. Valdez, the Supreme Court of California held that “criminal negligence would occur when a reasonable person, with a duty of care, in the position of the accused has the knowledge of the relevant risk and still refuses to take action”. Therefore, intention to cause injury or loss to the other party is not a prerequisite; a mere gross omission where a duty of care existed would implicate criminal negligence. Applying this rationale, it would be reasonable to claim that the Lebanese government authorities’ lack of action to safely dispose of the ammonium nitrate or displace it to a place with suitable conditions would amount to criminal negligence.  Thus, there has been a failure to comply with the standard of care that this material required.

In Tina Marie Bryant v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court revisited the meaning of criminal negligence. The court observed that criminal negligence requires either “a wanton or willful action or a reckless indifference to the rights of others”. It also reasoned that ‘criminally negligent’ behaviour may be assessed by reference to the result of the behavior and not the behaviour itself. On the basis of this, it can be said that the Lebanese Government Authorities, while handling hazardous material like ammonium nitrate, was criminally negligent as the behavior discharged results in a manner as to harm the people living in the city. The act of storing the shipment of a highly combustible substance carelessly in a warehouse resulted in the explosion, leaving a devastating impact on the city of Beirut and violating the rights of people. 

We can therefore reach to the conclusion that the state officials and authorities are responsible for the explosion that occurred, and for the damage and loss caused to life, limb, and property. Subsequently, there exists a duty upon the government to hold concerned persons criminally liable and grant compensation to the victims. 

The government of a state owes a duty of care towards all its citizens. This duty is not limited to their life and health; it extends to their property and livelihood. Apart from the deaths and injuries, the blast left around 300,000 people homeless and the entire city at a threat of food scarcity. The explosion in Beirut just reflects the negligent attitude and disregard of the Lebanese government towards the rights of their citizens. The existence of the inherently hazardous, explosive material which was left unattended in the heart of the city implicates the government to be responsible for the explosion. Lebanon which was already going through an acute economic crisis, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, will have to struggle to get on its feet after the unprecedented explosion. Therefore, it becomes important to ascertain liability for the gross criminal negligence, and those responsible for the explosion should be held accountable. 

Sarah Ayreen Mir is a 4th Year student of School of Law, Christ University. 

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