California Judge Approves Two Charges Of Manslaughter Against Driver In The Electrocution Of Two Good Samaritans

staceyirmaThere is a tragedy in California that has led to a particularly challenging question of proximate causation. It appears well established that Arman Samsonian, 19, was driving recklessly when he slammed his SUV into a utility pole and a fire hydrant. It was a bad combination. When two individuals ran over to help, they were both electrocuted to death by the electrified water from the hydrant in contact with a fallen wire. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Karen Nudell last week approved charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for the deaths of good Samaritans, Irma Zamora (right) and Stacey Schreiber (left). The defense insists these were unforeseeable intervening acts that should not be the basis for criminal charges.

Witnesses say that Samsonian was speeding and possible street racing, but his family has denied the allegation.

After the crash, Daniel Woloszyn testified that he had pulled over to call 911. As he called, his wife, Irma Zamora, jumped out of their vehicle to help the driver. HE then got out and saw his wife lying on the ground. She was dead. As he tried to help her, he was shocked. Schreiber, 39, was then electrocuted trying to assist Samsonian.

drivervalleyvillageThe defense appears ready to concede that Samsonian was driving recklessly but says that the convergence of the wire and the hydrant in causing the deaths was unforeseeable. In both criminal law and torts, proximate causation concepts are used to limit liability. These manslaughter or negligent homicide charges straddle the line between criminal and tort liability. Missing is true intent to harm. The intent in found in the driving recklessly or in other cases driving under the influence. Yet, this case does present a novel question of how far that can go. Is any chain of events attributable to the defendant so long as it is directly linked to his original crime. In torts, the question is handled differently under two doctrine: Polemis and Wagon Mound. Under Polemis, any direct consequence of an act of negligence can be attributed to the defendant. In that case, a plank was negligently kicked into a ship hold that resulted in an unexpected explosion. In Wagon Mound, an English court rejected that approach and required that the harm be foreseeable. As change in harm could cut off liability in some case under Wagon Mound. Under the torts analysis, a Wagon Mound jurisdiction could cut off liability here for the deaths. After all that case involved oil passing on the surface of the water, catching fire, and burning property on the other side of a bay or port. Moreover, in torts, rescuers are foreseeable as Judge Cardozo held in Wagner v. International Railway, 232 N.Y. 176 (1926), when he held that “Danger invites rescue.”

Causation principles can be different in criminal law. However, the general concept remains one of foreseeability. Otherwise, prosecutors could daisy chain events to make out murder charges. This does not require that many daisies of course. It was foreseeable that he would do property damages and a fallen wire is certainly within that universe. However, this required a combination of the wire, the hydrant, and the rescuers. I find this a difficult case. I have qualms about extending proximate causation in such cases. Standing on the street before the accident, I would be hard pressed to foresee such a chain of events, though the fallen wire and electrocution would be within my range of possibilities. If one could foresee the fallen wire, a wet street is not too far beyond that expectation. For that reason, I can appreciate the view of the court that this is what can come from speeding on city streets.

What do you think?

Source: LA Times