According to medical examiner tradition, vehicular fatalities are accidents even when the crash was the result of drunken or reckless driving.
The vehicle operator will probably face some level of homicide charge in such a case, but a homicide death certification is only made when a vehicle is intentionally used as a weapon.
Intent is a slippery slope with various shades of meaning. Certainly, there’s a difference between the intent to perform an act (drive a car) and the intent to achieve a result. When considering traffic fatalities, medical examiners mostly focus on whether the driver intended to achieve a result.
Did the driver intend to kill? Intend to harm but not to kill? Intend only to frighten or threaten but not cause physical harm? Such distinctions are likely to be important to a jury, but should they be to the medical examiner?
Here’s a real case:
A young woman and her husband were quarreling. She went next door and returned with her mother, who joined in the argument along with other family members.
The kerfuffle spilled out into the yard. The husband stormed off, got into his vehicle and drove away. Some say his mother-in-law threw a rock at his departing vehicle.
After about a block, the man made a U–turn and drove back toward his relatives, accelerating to approximately 45 mph. He swerved toward the crowd, and the car struck his wife. He tried to lift her into the car to take her to a hospital, but his mother-in-law chased him off with a Taser.
The wife sustained serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis and a torn major blood vessel. She died in the hospital from a complication of a medical procedure.
Here are some further considerations:
The husband said he didn’t mean to hit anybody. He just wanted to “scare” people, particularly his mother-in-law.
It’s anybody’s guess whether his wife would have survived if he’d been allowed to drive her to the hospital immediately.
The medical procedure was necessary and was correctly done. Malpractice wasn’t an issue.
In the world of the medical examiner, the cause of a person’s death is that which initiates an unbroken chain of events, brief or prolonged, that leads to death. The medical procedure was necessitated by the woman’s injuries. It’s part of the chain of events initiated by those injuries, not an independent cause. So I would disregard it when making a manner of death determination.
Speculation about what might have happened if circumstances had been different, specifically if the woman had gotten to the hospital sooner, is irrelevant. Manner of death determinations should be based on what did happen, not on suppositions about what might have happened.
I can’t know for sure what was in the man’s mind when he swerved, so I could default to an undetermined manner of death. But it doesn’t really matter to me if the outcome of his actions exceeded his wishes or expectations. He intended to swerve, and he intended to frighten.
I’m inclined to believe he didn’t intend to kill his wife or even injure her, but I think a person whose behavior is reckless or menacing “owns” the consequences of that behavior. If jury members decide to acquit or to impose a lesser penalty because they believe he “didn’t mean to,” fine by me. If they throw the book at him, that’s fine, too.
I would certify this woman’s death a homicide.
What would you do?
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.