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Johnny and Eric are both strapping 21-year old friends who like to live on the edge. One early morning around 2:00 a.m., they decided to use a four-lane street for drag racing. There were no other drivers to interfere with their fun, so they parked side-by-side at a streetlight. Eric’s girlfriend, Cathy, waved her arm to give them the go ahead, and off they went reaching over 100 mph. Before they could reach the gas station, their agreed-on finish line, Johnny lost control while driving too fast for the road’s curve. He swerved off the road and hit a vagrant who was walking roadside. The pedestrian died instantly.
In Pennsylvania, Johnny would be charged with vehicular homicide. Vehicular homicide is recklessly or with gross negligence causing the death of another while violating laws covering the operation of a vehicle or traffic regulations.
There are two types of negligence: simple and gross negligence. Simple negligence occurs when an individual owes a duty of care, fails to exercise that duty and injures or kills another person. The individual’s failure to exercise his duty of care is the direct cause of the injury or death.
For a driver, the duty of care is at minimum to abide by all traffic laws. This duty of care protects pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists. If a person runs a stop sign because he didn’t see it in time and kills a cyclist as a result, then he is negligent for failing to exercise care and consequently causing the death of the cyclist.
Gross negligence is simple negligence PLUS a reckless disregard for the safety of others. There is an element of awareness, willfulness or intentionality when someone acts with gross negligence. For example, in contrast to a driver who runs a four way stop because he didn’t see the sign, a driver who knowingly races through a four way stop is intentionally failing to perform his duty of care. If a pedestrian or any other person is killed because of a driver’s willful failure to perform his duty of care while he is driving, then he has committed vehicular homicide.
In Johnny’s case, he knowingly sped in excess of the speed limit, lost control as a result and killed a pedestrian.
Penalties for Vehicular Homicide
In Pennsylvania, vehicular homicide is a felony of the third degree, and the perpetrator may be sentenced to no more than seven years in prison and a maximum fine of $15,000. If the event occurred in an active work zone, then an additional five years may be added to the sentence. If there are additional violations, such as texting while driving or driving without a license, then an additional five years may also be added to the sentence.
What about DUIs?
If Johnny had been driving while under the influence when he killed the vagrant, then he has committed homicide by a vehicle while driving under the influence. This may be a second-degree or first-degree felony depending on any of the driver’s prior convictions. The sentencing for a second degree is three to ten years imprisonment and a fine not to exceed $25,000. Unlike with vehicular homicide, which is a grossly negligent action, a charge of homicide by a vehicle while driving under the influence is not dependent on the driver’s willfulness to break traffic laws when he killed another person. This means that a person does not have to commit the action intentionally so that impairment due to drunkenness is not a defense.
A charge of vehicular homicide requires help from an experienced attorney. Expert assistance is essential to collecting the appropriate evidence, securing expert witnesses, and properly discrediting potentially damaging evidence. If you are facing a charge of vehicular homicide, contact an attorney to help guide you through the best approach to your defense.