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Motor Vehicle Homicide in Massachusetts

engine-start-button-1445913-m.jpgUnder G. L. c. 90, § 24G(b), somebody who operates a car or other vehicle recklessly or negligently and endangers the lives of others, and thereby causes another’s death, can be convicted of homicide by a motor vehicle. The punishment is imprisonment in jail or a house of correction for a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of 2 1/2 years, or a fine of $300-3,000, or both of these.

In Commonwealth v. Gallien, the defendant was convicted of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation. The evidence showed the defendant didn’t stop the tow truck he was driving, resulting in a crash with a Honda Civic stopped at a red light. The collision killed a passenger in the rear-seat of the Honda.

The judge precluded the defendant from presenting evidence about modifications made to the Honda. The court explained that in criminal cases, a victim’s contributory negligence, even if it is a big part of the cause of a homicide, doesn’t excuse the defendant for also causing the victim’s death. To the extent that the defense’s goal was to show the victim was also negligent, excluding the evidence was proper. On appeal, however, the defendant argued that the modifications evidence should have been admissible not to show the victim’s negligence, but to show that the driver’s actions were an intervening or superseding cause of the victim’s death. The driver was a third party, not the victim.

In Massachusetts, actions are considered the proximate cause of death if the actions cause the death and without them, the death wouldn’t have occurred. However, under criminal law, intervening actions only relieve a defendant from culpability for negligence if that intervening action wasn’t reasonably foreseeable. In other words, an intervening action not reasonably foreseeable means that the victim’s death did not naturally and continuously follow from a defendant’s actions.

The court explained that even if modifications made to the car weren’t reasonably foreseeable, there was no evidence presented at trial that the modifications played a role in the death. There was nothing to show the modifications stopped the death from following naturally and continuously from the impact of the collision caused by the defendant. Accordingly, the court ruled that it was appropriate for the judge to exclude evidence on this score.

Towards the end of trial, the judge ruled that she wouldn’t instruct the jury about intervening or superseding causes because evidence was not presented of either. The defendant argued this was an error. Since the defendant hadn’t objected at the trial level, the appellate court looked at whether there was a substantial risk of miscarriage of justice due to this decision not to instruct.

The trial judge’s instructions were that the defendant caused the death if his conduct directly and substantially put in motion the chain of events that produced the death. In other words, the defendant was the cause of death if his conduct created a natural and continuous sequence without which the death wouldn’t have happened. The appellate court ruled that this was the correct instruction and that the evidence didn’t call for a different or added instruction.

The court also affirmed that the judge had properly instructed on the four elements of criminal motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation: (1) recklessly or negligently operating a vehicle to increase the risk of harm, (2) on a public way, (3) thereby causing a person’s death.

If you are charged in Massachusetts with a vehicle crime, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss the criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or contact us through this website.

More Blog Posts:

Assault and Battery Causing Serious Injury in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published January 14, 2015
Receiving Stolen Property in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 15, 2014