Criminal Law

Driving Deaths and Manslaughter

By Thomas Seigel, Attorney and Former Federal Prosecutor
An "accident" is just that—an unintended event. But some accidents, though unintended, result in serious criminal charges.

Traffic accidents produce dozens of fatalities every day. But not every accident-related death results in criminal charges against the driver. When someone causes the death of another person through negligent or reckless driving, however, that person might be charged with vehicular manslaughter, also called “vehicular homicide.” The vast majority of states have vehicular manslaughter laws. A small minority have more general laws against criminally negligent homicide, which cover death caused by the dangerous operation of a motor vehicle.

Let’s look more closely at the elements of vehicular manslaughter and some potential defenses.

Intent to Kill Not Required

In general, the difference between murder and manslaughter is that murder requires an intent to kill (or to inflict great bodily injury), but manslaughter does not. Thus, a defendant does not have to intend to kill or injure anyone in order to be guilty of vehicular manslaughter. To be convicted of vehicular manslaughter in most jurisdictions, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that:

  • the driver operated a motor vehicle in a reckless or grossly (severely) negligent manner, and
  • the driver’s conduct caused a fatality.

Reckless or grossly negligent conduct poses a more severe and obvious threat of death than mere carelessness or simple negligence. Recklessness and gross negligence can be shown in a variety of ways, such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or violating certain traffic laws, like speeding, texting while driving, or deliberately running a red light. Ignoring a warning not to drive while taking prescription medication could also constitute reckless and gross negligence, and so could driving with a known medical condition that could affect your ability to drive safely. The extent of the danger created by the driver’s actions will usually determine whether the defendant is charged with simple or aggravated (meaning more serious) vehicular manslaughter. Aggravated felonies carry stiffer penalties.

Note that mere negligent (careless) driving will not result in a charge of vehicular manslaughter. For example, suppose a driver causes a fatal accident while going five miles over the highway’s posted speed limit on a clear day. Even if analysis shows that speed was a factor in the accident, this excess speed is unlikely by itself to support a charge of vehicular manslaughter, though it could be the basis for a misdemeanor.

Defenses to a Vehicular Manslaughter Charge

Although the prosecutor does not have to prove that the driver intended to kill the accident victim, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant’s reckless or negligent act caused the victim’s death. A defendant may be able to argue that factors such as bad weather, other drivers, or even the victim’s own driving were the cause of the accident. In addition, if the case is based on a positive drug or alcohol test, the defendant might be able to challenge the accuracy of the laboratory report.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • Do we need an expert witness on accident reconstruction?
  • How will my prior accidents and traffic violations affect my chances?
  • Is there a way to challenge the lab reports?
  • Should we hire an investigator to look into the victim’s driving history?

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