Steven Anderson was drunk when he passed out on a rural highway. He was wearing dark clothing and went to sleep on the dark road around 1:00 am. There were no street lights in the area, and he was lying where there is a bend in the road. Darryl Saunders was drunk when he came driving around that bend. When he finally saw Anderson lying in the road, Saunders swerved to avoid him, but it was too late. He ran over Anderson, and Anderson died. Saunders’ blood alcohol concentration was tested at .150. Is Saunders criminally responsible for killing Anderson?
No, according to the judge who heard this case in Manitoba, Canada. The prosecutor argued Saunders could have avoided the collision if he were sober, so his intoxication was a significant cause of Anderson’s death. In addition, the prosecutor claimed, police testified it was not uncommon for intoxicated people to pass out on the street, so Saunders should have been on guard for drunks sleeping on the road.
The judge disagreed. He said, “On the contrary, one can easily imagine a scenario where just such an accident may occur in these circumstances without any impairment of the driver.” The Judge went on to say, “Ultimately, while I believe Mr Saunders’ impairment…likely or probably was a contributing cause to the accident, I cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that it in fact was a contributing cause, let alone a significant cause.” The judge found Saunders not guilty of causing Anderson’s death but convicted Saunders of drunk driving. A report of the case is on the website for the Winnipeg Sun.
This case would be approached a little differently if it occurred in Ohio. In Ohio, Saunders would be charged with Aggravated Vehicular Homicide. For him to be found guilty, the prosecution would have to prove he caused Anderson’s death as the proximate result of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (or operating a vehicle with a prohibited blood alcohol concentration). The concept which appears to distinguish Canadian law from Ohio law is the concept of “causation”.
In the Canadian case, the prosecution had to prove the drunk driving was a “significant cause” of death. Based on the judge’s statement, it appears a “significant cause” is something more than a “contributing cause”.
In Ohio law, a contributing cause is enough. According to the Ohio Jury Instructions, “cause” means: “an act…which in a natural and continuous sequence directly produces the death, and without which it would not have occurred”. The Ohio Jury Instructions also say: “There may be one or more causes of an event. However, if a defendant’s act or failure to act was one cause, then the existence of other causes is not a defense.” Interestingly, the Ohio Jury Instructions do not define “proximate result”.
The Ohio law gives the prosecutor a stronger argument in a case like this. The prosecutor in the Saunders case had to convince the judge Saunders’ intoxication was more than just a contributing cause. In Ohio, being a contributing cause is enough because the fact that Anderson passed out on a dark curvy road is not a defense. Those circumstances are only an issue if the judge or jury is convinced intoxication was not a cause at all.
Should a defendant be found guilty if his conduct is a cause of death but not the only cause? This is a difficult question, and Ohio’s answer is “yes”. Given this answer, Ohio should revise the jury instructions to provide clearer guidance to the jury on the issue of causation. The instructions should define “proximate result” in this way: “but for the defendant’s intoxication, the death would not have occurred”.