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BUS DRIVER’S INATTENTIVENESS DID NOT RISE TO LEVEL OF RECKLESSNESS or GROSS NEGLIGENCE REQUIRED FOR HOMICIDE BY VEHICLE CONVICTION

The PA Superior Court has recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Sanders, No. 3562 EDA 2017 (Pa. Super. February 3, 2020), holding that, although the facts of the case amounted to careless driving, the driving in question did not constitute the recklessness or gross negligence required to establish the offense of Homicide by Vehicle (HBV).

“While driving a bus in the scope of her employment with Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (“SEPTA”), Appellant struck and killed a 93-year-old pedestrian as he crossed the street.” 

Officer Morrisey investigated the incident and “was present for a mechanical inspection of the bus, which revealed no defects or issues that could have contributed to the crash. [He] determined that speed, roadway conditions, weather, or obstructed vision were not contributing factors in the crash.” 

He did note that video taken from the bus revealed that Sanders was picking up and looking at papers as she is stopped at the light; she had an unobstructed view of the intersection for 45 seconds, at which time the victim is visible in the video; she was preoccupied with the papers in her hand [during those 45 seconds]; she did not scan the intersection for pedestrians or other traffic hazards; and, before beginning her turn, she hesitated approximately 2.33 seconds, in contravention of SEPTA’s policy requiring drivers to wait a full four seconds before entering an intersection. “Additionally, she turn[ed] the wheel with one hand instead of two, while still holding the route paperwork.”

Based on the above facts, the trial court found Sanders guilty of HBV, Careless Driving, Careless Driving-Unintentional Death, Improper Movement and Failure to Signal. She was found not guilty of Improper Left Turn and Reckless Driving. 

Sanders appealed, in part, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence of her conviction for HBV. 

Upon reviewing the sufficiency argument, the Superior Court noted that, “to prove this offense, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant violated a provision of the Motor Vehicle Code, and that this violation was a cause of the victim’s death. Causation occurs when the Motor Vehicle Code violation is a direct and substantial factor in the victim’s death, and the fatal result is not extraordinary or remote.” 

“Further, and of significance, the defendant’s conduct must either be reckless or grossly negligent.” 

After a thorough analysis of the statute, the Superior Court noted that “the third element of HBV requires proof that the defendant acted recklessly or with gross negligence.”  

The court then pointed out that “the legislature has erected a firm boundary between careless driving and the reckless or grossly negligent conduct required for HBV” and that “HBV does not apply to most vehicle fatalities, tragic though they all are. To lose sight of this truth is to risk blurring the lines of criminal liability based upon negligence, ordinary recklessness and the form of recklessness encompassed in malice, that reflects extreme indifference to the value of human life.” 

The appellate court then concluded that “it is here that the Commonwealth’s case fails for lack of sufficiency, for while the evidence establishes [Sanders’] guilt for careless driving, it falls short of demonstrating recklessness or gross negligence. The evidence simply does not support a finding that [Sanders] was conscious that her driving created a substantial and unjustifiable risk that would cause injury, but that she nonetheless proceeded to drive in a reckless manner causing the victim’s death.” 

Accordingly, because there was no proof that Sanders was consciously aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk created by her conduct that would cause injury to the victim, the Superior Court held, as a matter of law, that “this case constituted careless driving but not recklessness or gross negligence” as required by the HBV statute. 

Commonwealth v. Sanders, No. 3562 EDA 2017 (Pa. Super. February 3, 2020).

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