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Can a Fatal Accident Caused by Speeding Lead to Manslaughter Charges in Maryland?

It is always tragic when an auto accident results in death. But in some cases, it can also lead to criminal charges. Under Maryland law, a person may be charged with manslaughter by vehicle (aka vehicular manslaughter) if they are found to have caused the death of another by operating a vehicle “in a grossly negligent manner.”

What exactly does “grossly negligent” mean? It is more than simply breaking a traffic law. Rather, it requires the state to prove–beyond a reasonable doubt–that the defendant acted with a “wanton or reckless disregard for human life.” Maryland courts look at a number of factors when establishing such disregard. The most common example is perhaps drunk driving. But it can also involve driving at an excessive speed “under the circumstances” involved.

Court of Special Appeals Upholds Vehicular Manslaughter Conviction

As the Maryland Court of Special Appeals observed in a recent unpublished decision, State v. Owens, speeding by itself does not qualify as gross negligence. But in certain circumstances excessive speed “may still be sufficient” to support a vehicular manslaughter conviction. Indeed, the Owens decision involved just such a scenario.

In this case, prosecutors charged the defendant with vehicular manslaughter and several other charges arising from a fatal auto accident. Specifically, the evidence at trial showed the defendant drove around a “blind curve” at over 80 miles per hour when he lost control of his vehicle, crossed the centerline, and hit a vehicle driving in the opposite direction, killing its occupant. The posted speed limit for this particular road was 50 miles per hour.

The Court of Special Appeals noted a number of additional circumstances, such as the passenger in the defendant’s vehicle warning him to slow down just before the accident and the lack of any skid marks on the road near the site of the collision, the latter suggesting the defendant made no effort to apply his brakes. Indeed, the defendant himself admitted he was driving too fast around the curve.

Under these circumstances, the Court of Special Appeals said the trial judge–the defendant elected to waive his right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial–was entitled to conclude that the defendant’s decision to drive at an excessive speed demonstrated he had “such a lack of control over his vehicle that he was likely to have brought harm to another.” That supported a finding that the defendant acted with a “reckless and wanton disregard for human life, which in turn justified a finding that he drove in a “grossly negligent manner” and committed vehicular homicide. The appellate court therefore dismissed the defendant’s appeal of his convictions on grounds of insufficient evidence.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.