Tuesday, November 22, 2011

DWI Law: Proximate Cause and Multiple Drunk Drivers

In a Vehicular Homicide case, or a Great Bodily Harm DUI, when the other driver has also been drinking is that evidence admissible? DAD has covered this issue with varying results. In State of Minnesota v. Nelson, --- N.W.2d ----, 2011 WL 5829025 (Minn.App.) the defendant was charged with vehicular homicide. Both the defendant's vehicle and the victim (Carlson) vehicle drove off the same curve in the road. The defendant struck and killed the victim there and then fled the scene. Four hours late the defendant/appellant's family reported the accident and took him to the hospital for examination. Becker County Sheriff Deputy Bruce Anderson met appellant at the hospital, noticed that appellant showed signs of intoxication, and read him the implied consent advisory. Appellant's blood alcohol concentration was tested at .056 and .058. The victim's BAC was measured as 0.15.

The district court granted the state's motion to exclude any evidence of Carlson's alcohol consumption; although Carlson's BAC was measured at .15 following the accident and witnesses had told police that Carlson was so inebriated earlier in the evening that friends had convinced him to leave his vehicle at the bar.

The appeals court held that in a criminal vehicular homicide case in which the negligent conduct of two motor vehicle drivers intertwines to cause the death of one driver, the district court abuses its discretion by excluding evidence of the victim driver's alcohol consumption while admitting evidence of the defendant driver's alcohol consumption. Discussing the concept of proximate cause, the court stated:

"For a party's negligence to be the proximate cause of an injury, the act must be one which the party ought, in the exercise of ordinary care, to have anticipated was likely to result in injury to others. There must also be a showing that the defendant's conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury."

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"But there can be more than one cause of a resulting harm, and the negligence of a second party may affect the determination of proximate cause as to a first party's negligence. “An intervening, superseding act breaks the chain of causation set in operation by a defendant's negligence, thereby insulating his negligence as a direct cause of the injury.” Hofer, 614 N.W.2d at 737 (quotation omitted). “A superseding, intervening cause of harm is generally the act of a third party occurring after a defendant's negligent act and operating as an independent force to produce the injury.” Id. (quotation omitted). Or, “[w]hen the acts or omissions of two or more persons combine to bring about a harmful result, those acts or omissions are concurring causes of the harm.” Id. In some cases, the negligence of the parties is so intertwined that they “combine to bring about a harmful result[.]” Id. Thus, when “the negligence of each participant is so related to the negligence of the other” and the result of their conduct was foreseeable, one of the participants may be charged with the causal negligence. C.P.W., 601 N.W.2d at 208 (rejecting claim that a juvenile driver who initiated a car chase was not culpable for the death of several others whose vehicles were struck by the vehicle being chased, after that vehicle entered an intersection on a red light, even though the juvenile driver was able to stop before the intersection); Hofer, 614 N.W.2d at 738 (ruling that the combined acts of a negligent driver entering an intersection on a red light and a pedestrian running in front of a bus while a “Don't walk” signal was displayed, followed a natural sequence that resulted in the pedestrian's death, which “was a foreseeable consequence of each act of negligence” that did not excuse the driver's negligence); see also State v. Munnell, 344 N.W.2d 883, 887 (Minn.App.1984) (ruling that contributory negligence of victim was not a defense to a charge of criminal vehicular operation in an accident involving a victim who was lying drunk on a county highway when struck by a vehicle that had crossed the center line); Ramirez v. Miska, 304 Minn. 4, 7, 228 N.W.2d 871, 873 (1975) (stating that if two parties are negligent in causing a collision, this “does not compel a finding that the negligence of each is a proximate cause”)."

It also held that, when the intertwined negligent conduct of two motor vehicle drivers results in charges of criminal vehicular homicide being brought against one driver, the district court's jury instruction must define causation to inform the jury that a guilty verdict requires that the defendant driver's conduct must have played a substantial part in bringing about the death or injury of the victim driver. The appeals court wrote:

"With regard to the criminal vehicular homicide charges, the district court instructed the jury that an element of each charged offense was that “the defendant caused the death of Christopher Wade Carlson.” Appellant's attorney had proposed to further define “causation” by including the following statement: “A ‘direct cause’ is a cause that had a substantial part in bringing about the accident.” Appellant's attorney argued that a more complete definition or explanation of negligence was necessary in this case. We agree."

"The causation instruction given by the court was accurate, but it did not assist the jury in deciding whether appellant was criminally culpable for causing the accident. The jury necessarily had to decide the conduct of appellant and Carlson in relation to each other in order to determine whether appellant would be held criminally responsible for the death. As noted earlier, seconds before impact, appellant's vehicle approached Carlson's ATV from the rear at a high rate of speed, but Carlson's ATV also veered from its path and into appellant's path moments before impact. On these facts, the jury needed to be instructed on the parties' fault as it related to whose conduct played a substantial factor in causing the accident. Because the caselaw defines causation in criminal vehicular homicide or operation cases as “something that played a substantial part in bringing about the death or injury,” Jaworsky, 505 N.W.2d at 643, appellant was entitled to have this definition included in the jury instructions. Further, given the evidence on the victim's conduct of veering off the highway and into the path of appellant's vehicle just 50 feet before the collision, the victim's negligence could have been an intervening, superseding cause that necessitated a jury instruction on that aspect of causation. Without being properly instructed here, the causation instruction that the jury received did not fairly or adequately present the issue of causation to the jury. See Koppi, 798 N.W.2d at 364."

Based upon the above, the appellate court reversed the conviction and remanded for a trial consistent with its ruling.

EDITOR's Note: Other states do not use the 'substantial factor' phrase in their definitions of proximate cause, and such a phrase may have affected the appellate court's decision about 'intertwining causes'.

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