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Washington Supreme Court upholds motor vehicle homicide conviction for Good Samaritan's death

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jul 16, 2019 | 0 Comments

Free Will

You're responsible for your own actions. Free will.

Don't worry … this isn't the start of an esoteric philosophy lesson.

This is the fundamental building block of the criminal justice system, and it's also your introduction to one of the most interesting cases issued by the Washington Supreme Court in the past few years.

You're criminally liable for the effects of your own actions, in other words. You drive drunk, and you'll be charged with DUI. You drive drunk and kill someone, and you'll be charged with DUI and motor vehicle homicide.

But how far does criminal liability go? Are there any limits?

The Washington Supreme Court grappled with this question this past week in State v. Frahm.

A DUI, Two Crashes, and One Death

Joshua Frahm was clearly intoxicated while driving his truck on a freeway in Vancouver on a dark, early morning in December 2014. He was speeding, driving erratically, and he nearly rear-ended several cars. Frahm crashed into Steven Klase's vehicle while going 85 mph.

The impact of the crash propelled Klase's vehicle into the media and then into the middle of the freeway. Klase was seriously injured. Frahm fled the scene.

A Good Samaritan (Irvine) witnessed the collision and stopped to help. Irvine pulled his sedan over to the right shoulder of the freeway, turned on his emergency lights, and crossed the freeway on foot to help Klase. He immediately called 911.

But then, while Irvine was speaking to emergency responders, a minivan crashed into Klase's vehicle (the driver didn't see Klase's disabled vehicle in the early morning darkness). This collision propelled Klase's vehicle into Irvine, throwing him across the roadway, causing severe brain and spinal injuries. Irvine died 12 days later.

The State charged Frahm with DUI, hit and run, and vehicular assault (for striking Klase's vehicle) in Clark County Superior Court. No surprise there.

But the State also charged Frahm with motor vehicle homicide, for causing Klase's death. 

A little more surprising, right? Frahm didn't crash into Irvine. Someone else did.

No, the State argued. Frahm's actions caused Irvine's death.

The jury agreed and found him guilty. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. 

But what would the Washington Supreme Court say? Would it uphold Frahm's unusual conviction for motor vehicle homicide?

Cause and Effect

In Washington, a defendant is guilty of motor vehicle homicide if he drives a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and proximately causes injuries that result in the death of another person.

This case turns on the phrase proximate cause. Proximate cause is not same as direct cause, what we usually think of as “cause and effect.” John punches Jim and Jim is injured. John's punch directly causes Jim's injury.

But proximate cause encompasses both actual cause and legal cause. To determine whether Frahm's acts proximately caused Irvine's death, the Court would have to determine whether Frahm's acts were both the actual and legal cause of Irvine's death.

First, legal cause. Legal cause is more of a policy question—that is, how far should criminal liability extend given a particular set of facts, based on logic, common sense, justice, and policy.

Sound amorphous? That's because it is.  

Here, in nutshell, is the Court's analysis on legal cause. The justices compared and contrasted prior cases dealing with this issue, and considered where the Frahm case fit on spectrum. The Court concluded that Frahm should be criminally liable because Frahm's actions (driving while intoxicated) directly created the harm (the accident) to which the Good Samaritan responded. But for Frahm's actions, Irvine would be alive.

Furthermore, Frahm was clearly aware that his actions were criminal (he fled the scene, after all) and he “initiated a substantial risk of further harm when he fled.”

What are intervening and superseding causes?

Having found legal cause, the Court then turned to actual cause and confronted Frahm's argument:

“I didn't kill the Good Samaritan. The other driver did. And besides, Irvine shouldn't have crossed a busy freeway in the early morning darkness. That was clearly negligent.”

Legally speaking, Frahm argued that these two acts (Irvine's negligence and the Sedan driving) were “intervening, superseding” causes that relieved Frahm of criminal liability. 

This brings up other amorphous legal terms. “Intervening” and “superseding” causes. An intervening act occurs after the defendant's act and breaks the direct chain between the defendant's act and the effect (for instance, the victim's injury).

An intervening act doesn't necessarily negate a defendant's criminal liability unless the intervening act is a superseding act. Whether an action is a superseding cause depends on whether a defendant can “reasonably foresee” the intervening act.

Confused yet? These examples should help.

John sets Jane's house on fire. Jane's house collapses and Jane is killed. The house collapse is an intervening cause that occurred after John's criminal act (i.e. the arson). A normal person, however, could reasonably foresee that a burning house would result from setting a house on fire so the intervening act does not relieve John of criminal liability for Jane's death.

Contrast that with this hypothetical. 

John set's Jane's house on fire. Jane's house collapses. As a result of the fire, a bowling ball rolls out of the house, rolls down a steep hill, and hits a bicyclist riding up the hill, which causes the bicyclist to fall off the bike and hit his head on a rock. The bicyclist then dies 5 days later due to serious brain injuries.

Yes, in a broad sense, but for the fire, the bicyclist would be alive. But is it reasonably foreseeable that the fire would have unleased this chain of actions leading to the bicyclist's death? Very likely, no. The “intervening” bowling bowl events constitutes a “superseding” cause that relieves John of criminal liability for the bicyclist's death.

In Frahm's case, the jury was instructed on the law surrounding criminal liability and the distinction between intervening and superseding causes. In finding Frahm guilty, the jury found that the two intervening acts (the freeway crossing and the second collision) were not superseding causes.

Frahm argued that the jury's conclusion was clearly wrong and the Court should throw out the verdict.

So was Frahm's case more like house fire collapse or the strange bowling ball case? Or neither? Or both?

The Court didn't say. Juries get to decide whether intervening causes are superseding causes, the Court ruled. Appellate courts shouldn't interfere unless the jury's decision is clearly wrong.

Here the jury weighed the evidence and concluded that “neither intervening event superseded Frahm's criminal acts as to the actual cause of Irvine's death.” Maybe the decision wasn't clearly right, but it wasn't clearly wrong.

For all these reasons, the Court upheld Frahm's conviction for motor vehicle homicide. 

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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