Intervening cause | Atlanta DUI lawyer

An Atlanta DUI lawyer knows that the burden is upon the State to prove the corpus delicti; i.e., to show that the defendant's alleged unlawful acts were the proximate cause of the purported victim's death. Brown v. State, 152 Ga. App. 273, 262 S.E.2d 497 (1979). See also McKinney v. State, 204 Ga. App. 323, 419 S.E.2d 339 (1992). In other words, to sustain a verdict of guilty for vehicular homicide in the first degree or second degree, the evidence must authorize the jury to conclude that the defendant's action (violation of a traffic statute) caused the death of the victim. Williams v. State, 165 Ga. App. 831, 302 S.E.2d 736 (1983).

An interesting causation issue was resolved against the defendant in Pitts v. State, 253 Ga. App. 373, 559 S.E.2d 106 (2002), when the court again noted that in order to be convicted of vehicular homicide the conduct of the defendant must have caused the death. In Pitts, an officer pursued the defendant to initiate a traffic stop. Instead of stopping, the defendant attempted to elude the officer. After a one-minute and 49-second chase, the officer attempted to stop the vehicle using the Pursuit Intervention Technique (PIT) by pulling up along side the defendant's vehicle intending to tap the vehicle on the right rear quarter causing it to spin out of control. However, the vehicle flipped and wrecked. Unbeknownst to the officer, the defendant's eight-week-old daughter was a passenger in the truck who later died from her injuries after the wreck.

It appears that the defendant in Pitts did not appeal any issues related to the jury instructions, but only challenged the sufficiency of the evidence. In addressing the causation issue, the court noted that the State was required to prove the causation issue by showing that the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause, as well as “the cause in fact” of the death. The court held that the evidence was sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's actions of eluding an officer at high speed in a reckless manner with a baby in his truck played a substantial part in bringing about the child's death and that the death was a reasonably probable consequence of the defendant's actions. In so holding, the court virtually ignored the fact that it was the officer who intentionally caused the collision by attempting to stop the vehicle using the Pursuit Intervention Technique.

In Stephens v. State, 127 Ga. App. 416, 193 S.E.2d 870 (1972), where a car left the roadway after a tire had blown out and the driver appeared to be the only person at the scene, the Court of Appeals held that a jury can consider strong circumstantial evidence that there was a corpus delicti.

To determine what caused the death of the victim consider whether (1) the injury itself constituted the sole proximate cause of the death; (2) the injury directly and materially contributed to the happening of a subsequent accruing immediate cause of the death; or (3) the injury materially accelerated the death, although proximately occasioned by a pre-existing cause. Brown v. State, 152 Ga. App. 273, 262 S.E.2d 497 (1979); Wilson v. State, 190 Ga. 824, 10 S.E.2d 861 (1940).

Where there is no testimony except that of witnesses who testify they do not know how the deceased met her death, the evidence is insufficient to sustain the conviction, since it may be presumed that death resulted from natural causes. Brown v. State, 152 Ga. App. 273, 262 S.E.2d 497 (1979), quoting Martin v. State, 102 Ga. App. 216, 115 S.E.2d 859 (1960). Hence, the State has the burden of proving through the coroner or medical examiner how the death occurred.

However, in Wimbush v. State, 185 Ga. App. 76, 363 S.E.2d 347 (1987), the Court of Appeals held that the mere fact that there was no specific testimony that the extensive injuries suffered in the collision were the proximate cause of the victim's death would not prevent the jury, after hearing a description of the wound which had been inflicted, from determining for themselves whether or not the wound was the cause of death. And, if the jury decided that the wound was a cause sufficient to produce death, and no other cause was shown to have existed, there was a sufficient basis for the conclusion that the death resulted from the wound rather than from some other cause, the existence of which was not supported by the evidence.

Moreover, in McKinney v. State, 213 Ga. App. 498, 445 S.E.2d 550 (1994), the defendant was convicted of second degree vehicular homicide, failure to stop at or return to the scene of an accident (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-270), reckless driving (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-390) and following too closely. The Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant even though there were no eyewitnesses and the State's expert was unable to testify conclusively that the defendant's car struck the other vehicle.

Practice Commentary

The Wimbush, McKinney and Pitts cases highlight the critical need for the DEFENSE to utilize top-level expert witnesses in investigating and preparing a case for trial. In cases where a jury's decision can "go either way," presentation of expert testimony on critical issues such as cause of death, or the causal connection between the traffic violation and the death of a person following that violation is critical. Never depend upon being able to cross-examine a State expert sufficiently to carry the day for acquittal.

Implicit in having to prove that the defendant caused the death of the victim, the State must also prove that the victim died. Testimony from the medical examiner and tendering of the death certificate is sufficient to establish the victim's death. In Everett v. State, 216 Ga. App. 444, 454 S.E.2d 620 (1995), the Court of Appeals held that the State failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant caused the death of the victim. The court specifically stated that the State failed to prove that the victim was dead in that there was no expert or (non-expert) testimony presented regarding the cause of death.

In Gooch v. State, 155 Ga. App. 708, 272 S.E.2d 572 (1980), the defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol when he collided with another vehicle and left the scene of the collision. The victim died as the result of the head-on collision. Under these facts there was no merit to the claim that the evidence was wholly circumstantial and did not exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of guilt. See also Beaman v. State, 161 Ga. App. 129, 291 S.E.2d 244 (1982).

In Quaile v. State, 172 Ga. App. 421, 323 S.E.2d 281 (1984), it was undisputed that the defendant's vehicle collided with that of the victim as the latter pulled out onto the road; that the police officers found the victim unconscious, drooped over her steering wheel and gasping for breath; and that she died soon after her arrival at the hospital. This evidence established the requisite causal connection between the automobile collision and the victim's death.

In Jackson v. State, 152 Ga. App. 441, 263 S.E.2d 181 (1979), the victim was alive after a head-on collision with defendant's vehicle, but after a third car struck the victim's vehicle, he died. After the first impact, but before the second, the victim, who was pinned against the steering wheel, was heard to say, “I feel like everything is busted up inside me. I'm feeling real bad.”

Although there was some conflict in the evidence, the facts excluded every other reasonable hypothesis except the defendant's guilt where the State showed that the point of impact with defendant's vehicle was in the deceased's lane of traffic. Furthermore, the medical examiner could find no injuries that he could conclude were caused by the second crash. The deceased died of deceleration injuries of the kind typically caused by head-on collisions. The physician's opinion was that the deceased, in fact died of deceleration injuries.

To sustain a verdict of guilty for vehicular homicide in the first degree for failure to stop and render assistance [O.C.G.A. § 40-6-270 (leaving the scene); O.C.G.A. § 40-6-393], the evidence must authorize the jury to conclude that the defendant's failure to stop and render assistance caused the victim's death. Williams v. State, 165 Ga. App. 831, 302 S.E.2d 736 (1983).

In Campbell v. State, 136 Ga. App. 338, 221 S.E.2d 212 (1975), the Court of Appeals held that “[i]t is not a sufficient defense in the law to show that the wound was treated improperly by a doctor, and that if it had been properly treated the deceased might have recovered. What is necessary to cut off criminal responsibility and serve as an independent intervening cause is clear proof that the treatment of a non-mortal wound, and not the injury itself, is the proximate cause of death.”

In Corbett v. State, 277 Ga. App. 715, 627 S.E.2d 365 (2006), Defendant appealed his conviction of vehicular homicide by driving under the influence of alcohol to the extent that it was less safe for him to drive. The Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence to support defendant's conviction for vehicular homicide by driving under the influence with more than 0.08 grams of blood alcohol concentration. In this case, the officer was asked what results of blood alcohol testing were used and he testified to a numerical reading. Defendant stipulated that the instruments used for the charged incident were used to measure the blood alcohol content of his body.

Furthermore, the evidence was sufficient because Defendant's reaction time was slower than it otherwise would have been, and Defendant failed to take evasive action to avoid hitting the victim. The Court held that the vehicular homicide statute requires the State to establish a causal connection between the defendant's violation of the driving under the influence statute and the victim's death. The State is not required to show that the Defendant actually committed an unsafe act.

In Gregory v. State, 277 Ga. App. 664, 627 S.E.2d 79 (2006), the Court of Appeals held that testimony from a witness who observed defendant in his vehicle with his back against the front passenger door and his feet pointed toward driver's door, combined with defendant's admission to both law enforcement officers and the magistrate judge that he was the driver of the vehicle, was sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to conclude that the defendant was the driver at the time of the accident.

McGrath v. State, 277 Ga. App. 825, 627 S.E.2d 866 (2006), was another recent case where the Court of Appeals ruled that Defendant's conduct while driving proximately caused the victim's death based on reckless driving even though the victim was struck and killed by a third party after Defendant was involved in a collision. The victim, who had stopped to render aid, was crossing road when the third party struck her.

In support of its holding, the Court held that an injury or damage is proximately caused by an act or a failure to act whenever it appears from the evidence in the case that the act or omission played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury or damage and that the injury or damage was either a direct result or a reasonable probable consequence of the act.