After a transport van for disabled children and their aides crashed, killing one of the aides, the mechanic who had just completed a brake inspection was held criminally responsible for the aide’s death.
The van driver survived the crash and told a disturbing account of the events of the day. After picking up the children and their aides and delivering them to school, the van driver returned the van to the transport company garage and complained that it “shook and shimmied” when she applied the brakes. After arguing with her supervisor about her concerns, the driver was told a mechanic would “look at it.” The driver was given the same van for the end-of-day school pickup and was told the problem had been “fixed.” With the two children and the aides in the van, the driver lost all brake function on a steep street and eventually crashed into a tree at high speed, One of the aides lost her life.
The accident investigation focused on the brake condition and repair. The van company mechanic’s notes indicated that after the van driver complained about the brakes in the morning, he pulled all four tires in the early afternoon. His notes read: “Brakes are fine, adjust up rears and noted measurements of brakes both the front and back.’ The mechanic’s notes included detail on the brake measurements he had made. When he was interviewed after the accident, the mechanic insisted that his notes were accurate and that his inspection of the brakes had been thorough.
But the postaccident inspection of the van was completely inconsistent with the mechanic’s notes and interview. Screws that should have been removed showed no sign of recent removal. It appeared that all the tires had not been removed. One of the brake drums had to be beaten with a hammer for removal, and both rear brake drums were full of dust and debris. The left rear bTake cylinder was frozen and totally inoperable. The right rear brake drum was cracked. The measurements of the brakes noted by the mechanic were significantly different than those taken by the inspectors after the accident.
On appeal from his conviction for involuntary manslaughter and sentence of a maximum off 5 years of jail followed by five years of probation, the mechanic claimed that he had not caused the accident and could not be held criminally responsible. The Superior Court firmly disagreed, noting that the crime of involuntary manslaughter is defined as causing the death of another person as “a direct result of the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner.” The court observed that “it has never been the law of this Commonwealth that criminal responsibility must be confined to a sole or immediate cause of death.’ Instead, “a direct result” can come from one of several causes. When reckless or grossly negligent conduct is a direct and substantial factor in another person’s death, the fact that other factors combined to cause the death does not amount to a valid defense. The overwhelming evidence that the mechanic had not properly inspected or repaired the brakes, combined with the falsification of his notes, amounted to reckless and grossly negligent conduct, according to the court.
It is rare for a person not directly involved in a vehicle accident to be held criminally responsible for a person’s death, Had the van driver not been misled about the repair of the brakes, she too could have been similarly charged with involuntary manslaughter. The mechanic’s persistent and apparently false insistence that he had completed a full and competent inspection may have contributed to an unfair result if the falsification actually concealed directives or pressure put on him by the supervisor who argued with the van driver about the brakes. Individuals who are employed in the trucking and transport industries sometimes face difficult decisions when they are expected to drive vehicles their employers do not properly maintain. This case provides a sober reminder that anyone whose actual conduct is reckless or grossly negligent with regard to the safety of a motor vehicle is potentially criminally liable.