Vehicular Homicide and Causation (Part 1)

by | Jan 19, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Sexual OffenseOn November 25, 2019, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Camden County case of State v. Gregory Parkhill. The principal issue concerned whether the trial judge was required to instruct the jury on causation regarding the pedestrian victim’s role in the accident.

Judge Ostrer wrote for the Court and held in relevant part: This case is more like Jamerson than Buckley. As did the victim in Jamerson, the pedestrian here placed himself in defendant’s path. In Jamerson, the victim allegedly ran a stop sign. Here, the victim crossed outside the crosswalk. By contrast, in Buckley, the accident would have occurred, even if the passenger-victim wore his seat belt, and the light post were placed behind the guardrail. In this case, it was not conceded that “the fatal accident would have been avoided had defendant not driven . . . in the manner in which he did.” Buckley, 216 N.J. at 267. Defendant contended that the pedestrian caused the accident. In sum, “but for” causation was in issue.

In this case, the court instructed the jury, as part of the model charge on vehicular homicide, that causation was one of three elements of the offense. But, the court’s explanation of causation was limited to “but for” causation. Regarding causation, the judge stated only, “In order to find that the defendant caused the victim’s death, you must find that the victim would not have died but for defendant’s conduct.” The court’s instruction may have led the jury to believe that “but for” causation was all that the State had to prove to establish the causation element of the offense. But it was not the only aspect of causation that was in issue.

Turning to the other elements of causation, the Supreme Court in Buckley highlighted that remoteness, fortuity, and another’s volitional act do not come into play if the State relies only on the first prong of N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3(c). If “the actual result was within the risk of which the actor is aware,” N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3(c), then “the element of causation is established under the first prong.” As the State in Buckley chose to rely solely on the first prong, the Court deemed irrelevant “evidence that the victim’s failure to wear a seat belt exacerbated his chance of dying in the collision.” Id. at 268.

The court describes a concept similar to strict liability. Strict liability means that the actor is responsible for the result of their actions irrespective of their mind state.