The parents of Askia Khafra, a deceased 27-year-old man from Bethesda, have brought a lawsuit for negligence against Daniel Beckwitt in a Montgomery County court after their son died in a fire within his home. Khafra was at Beckwitt's home at the time of the blaze working to construct tunnels as part of an underground bunker. Beckwitt was alleged to be a “hoarder” with an excessive amount of items stored throughout that home that caused the fire to rapidly spread. Other dangerous conditions in the home included a lengthy network of electrical extension cords and some potentially hazardous chemicals that were being stored.
Beckwitt and Khafra came to an agreement that involved exchanging Khafra's help with creating the tunnels beneath the home for some funds that Khafra sought to start an internet business. The claim alleges that Beckwitt would pick Khafra up in a vehicle and require that he remain blindfolded until they arrived and entered the home so that the location of the home would remain unknown. Khafra's friends believed that he would spend long periods of time at the home working and often slept in the tunnels.
Beckwitt is facing criminal charges in addition to the civil action, which includes murder (second-degree) and involuntary manslaughter. Legal representation for Beckwitt stated that the fatality was of an accidental rather than criminal nature. Khafra's remains were badly burned in the fire. Those who have investigated described the basement as having a “shaft” that extended roughly 20 feet below into a tunnel system that spanned approximately 200 feet. It is reported that Beckwitt wanted to use the bunker in the event of a bombing invasion.
The entrance to the bunker was created by initially creating a large hole in the basement floor. The tunnel system was believed to have had a system of ventilation and a source of heat. Khafra had sent some photos of himself working there to friends on several occasions.
Exact Cause of Death Undetermined
On the day of the incident, Khafra sent a text message to Beckwitt saying that he smelled smoke. Beckwitt turned the breaker switch on and off in efforts to check the home's electrical system. Thus far the investigation has been unable to determine the actual cause of the fire. Beckwitt was said to have been cooperating with those investigating.
Data from the U.S. Fire Administration is as follows:
- The number of fires reported nationally declined from 1,642,000 in 2006 to 1,345,000 in 2015
- In Maryland, the average death rate from fires is 9.1 and the relative risk rate is .80
- In Washington D.C., the likelihood of dying in a fire is nearly twice that of in Maryland. The average death rate from fires is 17.5 and the relative risk rate is 1.60
Wrongful Death Burden of Proof
As is the case with Daniel Beckwitt, a defendant in a wrongful death action may also be facing criminal charges stemming from the incident. Often the civil action may be delayed until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings. It is important to differentiate the burden of proof required between the two. A criminal case must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”; however, a civil case bears a lower standard “by a preponderance of the evidence”.