Washington Supreme Court Finds Second Collision Is Not Superseding Cause in Vehicular Homicide Case

To convict a defendant of vehicular homicide in a Washington criminal case, the state must prove that the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of the victim’s death.  In Washington law, the term “proximate cause” includes both actual cause and legal cause.  In a recent case, a defendant challenged his vehicular homicide conviction, alleging that there was an intervening superseding cause of the victim’s death.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was intoxicated when he rear-ended a vehicle at 85 m.p.h.  The defendant did not stop to assist the other driver, whose vehicle was disabled across the left and middle lanes.

A witness to the collision stopped to help.  The Good Samaritan pulled onto the right shoulder and engaged his flashers.  He crossed the freeway to help the driver and was on the phone with the 911 dispatchers when another vehicle struck the disabled vehicle.  The impact caused the disabled vehicle to strike the Good Samaritan, causing injuries that resulted in his death 12 days later.

The state brought a number of charges against the defendant, including vehicular homicide. The trial court instructed the jury on intervening, superseding cause.  The jury found the defendant guilty of vehicular homicide and other charges.  The defendant appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support the vehicular homicide verdict.  The appeals court affirmed the conviction, and the Washington Supreme Court granted review.

Vehicular homicide occurs when a person dies as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by a driver operating under the influence, in a reckless manner, or with disregard for others’ safety.  The defendant’s conduct must be the actual cause and the legal cause of the victim’s death.  Actual cause is a fact question for the jury.  Legal cause, however, is a legal question requiring a determination of whether the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the result is substantial enough to impose liability.

The Washington Supreme Court has established that legal cause is more narrow in a criminal case than in a personal injury cause.  The court found there was legal causation here because the defendant’s acts were criminal, caused direct harm and risk of further harm, and occurred close in time and location to the ultimate harm.

The defendant argued there was an intervening superseding cause that relieved him of liability for the Good Samaritan’s death.  He argued that the Good Samaritan’s crossing the freeway and the second collision constituted intervening superseding causes of the victim’s death.  The court noted that an intervening cause is a force that produces harm after the defendant’s act or omission.  If an intervening cause is so strong it relieves the defendant of liability for the injury, it is a superseding cause.  An intervening cause may only be a superseding cause if it was not reasonably foreseeable.  It is a fact question for the jury to determine if an intervening act constitutes a superseding cause.

The court noted that both the victim crossing the freeway and the second collision were intervening events because they happened after the defendant’s criminal actions.  However, the jury had found neither action superseded the defendant’s criminal acts as the actual cause of the victim’s injuries and death.  The Washington Supreme Court found the appeals court had properly considered whether the foreseeability was “highly extraordinary or unexpected” in determining the issue of intervening, superseding cause was a question of fact for the jury.  The Washington Supreme Court found the question was properly put to the jury because reasonable minds could have differed in determining whether there was a superseding cause.

The Washington Supreme Court found sufficient evidence supporting the conviction because a rational trier of fact could have found guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  The court further found the defendant’s acts were the proximate cause of the victim’s death and affirmed the conviction.  It affirmed the appeals court’s opinion.

This case shows a person involved in an automobile accident may be held criminally responsible for injuries that occur even after he or she leaves the scene.  If you face criminal charges arising from an automobile accident, the experienced Washington DUI defense attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, can fight for you.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.