There are at least four situations in which the failure to act may constitute breach of a legal duty. One can be held criminally liable: first, where a statute imposes a duty to care for another; second, where one stands in a certain status relationship to another; third, where one has assumed a contractual duty to care for another; and fourth, where one has voluntarily assumed the care of another and so secluded the helpless person as to prevent others from rendering aid. In any of the four situations, there are critical issues of fact which must be passed on by the jury.
A baby died at 10 months old. At the hospital, he was diagnosed as suffering from severe malnutrition and lesions over large portions of his body, apparently caused by severe diaper rash. A case was filed against his mother for involuntary manslaughter. The trial court convicted her of involuntary manslaughter through failure to perform their legal duty of care. The case was elevated on appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The mother asserted that the trial court committed plain error, in instructing the jury of her legal obligation to provide food and necessities to a baby in her care.
Did the trial court commit plain error?
The court held that criminal liability could be found for breach of a statutory duty where there was a certain status relationship, where one had assumed a contractual duty, and where one had secluded a helpless person so as to prevent others from aiding. Thus, since a finding of legal duty was the critical element of the crime charged, failure to instruct the jury concerning it was plain error. Further, it was obvious error to instruct the jury without notice to counsel.