Our legal system is divided into two major categories, both of which are designed to address wrongdoing. These are the criminal justice system and the civil justice system. In criminal cases, the executive branch of government, composed of police and prosecutors, files criminal charges against those alleged to have committed crimes. Citizens normally cannot charge other citizens with crimes, but a citizen can sue another citizen in the civil justice system, when he or she has been wrongfully harmed by another citizen or by a business. A person convicted of a crime can face incarceration, fines and other punishments, while a person found civilly liable in a tort case usually must simply pay a monetary judgment to the plaintiff. Quite often, the civil and criminal justice systems overlap and blend into each other.
Recently, a man was charged with homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter in Centre County. According to police, the man was driving about 60 mph in a 25 mile per hour zone. Near a bend, he lost control of his vehicle, which veered off the road and collided into a pole and fire hydrant. The driver's friend, a passenger in his back seat, died from injuries sustained in the accident. At the defendant's preliminary hearing, a witness said she saw the vehicle speeding shortly before the fatal crash.
The defendant's attorney argues that the crash does not warrant criminal charges, instead categorizing it as a civil matter. He explains, "Let's assume for now that this accident occurred because my client was going too fast around a curve. Speeding in itself is not a crime." The defense attorney feels that the accident was a product of ordinary negligence. In order for a person to be convicted of homicide by vehicle, the Commonwealth must prove that he engaged in "gross negligence" or "recklessness" not mere "ordinary negligence." Cases of ordinary negligence are handled in the civil justice system, where the decedent's family can sue the defendant for monetary damages for the loss of their loved one. Only car accidents resulting from gross negligence or recklessness can warrant both criminal charges as well as a civil law suit.
If this case is not resolved by a plea agreement, then ultimately either a judge or jury will have to determine whether this is a case of ordinary negligence or gross negligence. Usually, both parties would have to base their cases around the testimony of an accident reconstructionist, which is a type of expert witness. Most accident reconstructionists for the prosecution are Pennsylvania State Police troopers, while most defense accident reconstructionists happen to be retired State Police troopers. If the defense's own expert report suggested that the defendant engaged in gross negligence, then it is incumbent upon the defense attorney to try to get the best possible plea agreement for his client. This case will likely go to trial only if the defense's expert report suggests mere ordinary negligence, while the Commonwealth's expert report suggests gross negligence.
Source: Centre Daily Times, "Bellefonte man faces trial in passenger's death," Matt Carroll, Feb. 23, 2012