In this blog, we discuss both a very tragic and legally interesting case that was recently ruled on by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. It really underscores the potential exposure and criminal liability for someone who chooses to drives under the influence of alcohol.
According to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in a recent decision, State of Minnesota vs. Smith, a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order by an elderly woman who was severely injured in an accident with a drunk driver is not a superseding cause that would prevent the drunk driver from being convicted of criminal vehicular homicide.
In this case, the appellant was driving home while drunk when he collided with a 93-year-old woman. The elderly woman was taken to the hospital suffering from a brain injury, cuts to her face and body and multiple spinal fractures. She eventually contracted pneumonia and needed to be intubated to continue breathing, but her DNR order prevented doctors from performing the procedure. As a result, she died.
A jury found the appellant guilty of criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation of a motor vehicle. He was sentenced to prison for 25 months for the criminal vehicular operation and 120 months for criminal vehicular homicide. The defendant appealed the verdict claiming that elderly woman’s DNR order acted as a superseding event that made his drunk driving not the legal cause of her death.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals noted that a person in Minnesota is guilty of criminal vehicular homicide if that person causes the death of anyone while operating a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater. Though cause is not defined in the statute itself, the Court is clear that this means the state must prove that the operation of the vehicle was the proximate cause of the victim’s death. Proximate cause means that the act must have played a substantial part in causing the death.
Here, the Court says that appellant caused the woman’s death because he was responsible for the accident which was a substantial factor in her eventual death. Though pneumonia was the medical cause of her death rather than the injuries inflicted upon her in the accident, the pneumonia was a result of her collapsed lung which did result from the accident.
The appellant also argues that the DNR order acted as an intervening event that relieved him of responsibility for her death. The Court of Appeals makes clear that appellant is right that the state must prove that there has not been an intervening force which the appellant could not have foreseen. If there were such an unforeseen force, then it would break the chain of causation and relieve appellant of culpability in the death.
However, the DNR order fails the test for what is a superseding cause because it was foreseeable that a drunk driver could injure an elderly person so badly that death would occur rather than continued medical treatment. The Court pointed out that many people use such orders, not just the elderly, and because it was reasonably foreseeable it cannot be an intervening cause.
To read the full opinion, click here.