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I am looking (searches so far not successful) for a term that describes this type of scenario:

A teen puts a nail against the tire of a parked car as a prank. It leads to an accident that results in a death, and is prosecuted for this.

A person pulls a knife on a victim and a passerby fires a gun to help out. The bullet misses, but kills a bystander, and the knife thief is the one charged with murder.

In other words, the term for prosecution based on being the one that set in motion a series of events, even if not the one finally responsible, here, neither the driver, nor the shooter.

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  • "felony murder" in the specific case of death Jan 12, 2020 at 0:22
  • @GeorgeWhite the 2nd example isn't something that DAs like very much. It is a mess,
    – Trish
    Sep 29, 2022 at 10:18

4 Answers 4

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I would describe those scenarios as hard cases on causation. I don't think there is any single word for an act which gives rise to such a case.

Each case relates to an act which was a necessary condition of the injury which occurred. "But for" causation is established. However, the factual scenario is an unusual one where the legal or proximate cause is not obvious.

Cases in which the chain of causation is too complex for the defendant to be held liable may be described as failing on the grounds of remoteness or foreseeability. An intervening act which breaks the chain of causation is called a novus actus interveniens.

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  • causation chains are limited though.
    – Trish
    Sep 29, 2022 at 10:03
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The term for prosecution is prosecution, regardless of the offense(s) that prompted the proceedings. Based on the pair of examples you sketched, you might be referring to involuntary manslaughter.

Black's Law Dictionary defines manslaughter as "[t]he unlawful killing of another without malice, either express or implied; which may be either voluntarily, upon a sudden heat, or involuntarily, but in the commission of some unlawful act". This unpublished opinion reflects an example of variant of this definition under California law (see references to section 192).

Both of the examples you outline involve an unlawful act: putting the nail against the tire of a car, pulling a knife on a victim, and maybe the passerby's act of shooting.

There is no all-encompassing term for all other acts which trigger series of events not involving the death of a person. This would depend on the tort or violation and the mental state attributed to it: involuntary, [grossly] negligent, reckless, intentional, malicious, and so forth.

kills a bystander, and the knife thief is the one charged with murder.

That will not be necessarily the case. The prosecutor's task is to assess the circumstances and preliminary evidence in order to decide who to charge and for what.

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  • Yes to everything you wrote. I am just looking for a term I'd heard but forgotten, which references the series of events set in motion. Not so much the term for prosecution. I'm re-reading my question to see if an edit would make it more clear. Jan 11, 2020 at 14:59
  • @JTP-ApologisetoMonica Are you thinking of "factual causation" as opposed to "proximate cause"? Hope this helps. Jan 11, 2020 at 15:06
  • 1
    I think Proximate cause may be it, or at least close. Jan 11, 2020 at 15:10
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An answer, only for the case involving a death, is felony murder. This will only apply if the intent of the original action was a felony. Someone killed in a bank robbery - yes, but not someone killed due to action initiated by a minor shoplifting incident. Or a nail leaned against a tire.

From Wikipedia

The rule of felony murder is a legal doctrine in some common law jurisdictions that broadens the crime of murder: when an offender kills (regardless of intent to kill) in the commission of a dangerous or enumerated crime (called a felony in some jurisdictions), the offender, and also the offender's accomplices or co-conspirators, may be found guilty of murder.

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The Nail: Sachbeschädigung in Tateinheit mit einem gefährlichen Eingriff in den Straßenverkehr mit Todesfolge.

Yep, law in has a specific construction for combining different charges, were one act results in breaking many many laws. It translates to "Damage to property in combination with a dangerous intervention in road traffic resulting in death":

  • Sachbeschädigung (Damage to property) is the act of deliberately destroying the tire or setting it up in such a way that it destroys the tire.
  • in Tateinheit (in conjunction with) says "By doing this act, they also did the following"
  • gefährlicher Eingriff in den Straßenverkehr (dangerous intervention in road traffic) is whenever someone who isn't on the road affects the road traffic, e.g. someone dumps rocks from a bridge or manipulates a car to create a crash - like by preparing a nail to result in a flat tire.
  • ...mit Todesfolge (...resulting in death) is a qualifier, that is used to distinguish the case from those with lesser damage. In this case, the result is that the Staatsanwaltschaft (state attorney) will try to get the maximum permitted punishment.

Failing in rendering aid is different

First of, shooting a gun to stop a crime in which someone's life is endangered would be allowable under Notwehr/Nothilfe. However, that paragraph also dictates that you need to use the least aggressive way that promises to solve the situation. Shooting the bystander does not, so wouldn't qualify as Notwehr, so different venues open:

  • If the bystander appeared to be part of the plot that put the knife to the neck of the man, and thus the shooter is misunderstanding the circumstances it could be judged as Fahrlässige Tötung (~neglectful killing)
  • If the situation was clear that the shot would not solve the situation or that the shooter wouldn't be able to do this shot on a good day under perfect conditions, it could be a lot of charges. The most serious would be the various forms of murder (Mord, Totschlag) but just as likely it could be ruled as battery followed by death (Körperverletzung mit Todesfolge).

However the knife-thief can't be prosecuted for murder in Germany because someone shot at him.

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