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Motor Vehicle Homicide by Negligent Operation

Motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation is one of the few situations in which a criminal conviction can result from mere negligence. A conviction for negligent motor vehicle homicide results in a mandatory 15-year loss of license in addition to a possible jail sentence.

Elements of Motor Vehicle Homicide by Negligent Operation

In order to convict a defendant of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:

  1. Operated a motor vehicle;
  2. On a public way;
  3. In a negligent manner so that the lives and safety of the public might have been endangered; and
  4. Caused the death of another person. A defendant causes another person’s death when his or her conduct substantially and directly places in motion a series of events that results in the victim’s death. The defendant’s conduct caused the death in a continuous and natural sequence of events, and the victim’s death would not have happened absent the defendant’s conduct.

It is usually easy for the Commonwealth to prove the first two elements – that the defendant was driving (or otherwise in control of) the car and that the operation occurred on a public way (any road maintained by the local, state, or federal government). The vast majority of negligent motor vehicle homicide defendants dispute the third element (that he or she was driving in a negligent manner) and, to a lesser extent, the fourth element (causation of death).

Negligence is a legal principal meaning that an individual did not use “due care” (in other words, did not act as a reasonably prudent person would have acted). Negligence in the motor vehicle homicide context encompasses a wide variety of activities, including speeding, failing to yield, and failing to stop. When there is a deadly motor vehicle accident, highly-trained Massachusetts state troopers from the Crash and Reconstruction Unit respond. The troopers take detailed measurements and photographs and then draft an accident reconstruction report. The accident reconstruction report generally contains complex physics formulas to determine the speed of the defendant’s car, the exact direction the car was traveling immediately before impact, and the location of the victim at impact. Based on their calculations, the troopers usually conclude that the defendant’s operation was negligent.

To rebut the Commonwealth’s accident reconstruction expert, defendants charged with motor vehicle homicide ordinarily need to hire their own expert. The defendant’s expert will visit the accident scene, review the Commonwealth’s accident reconstruction report, and form his or her own opinion regarding the cause of the accident. If the defendant’s reconstruction expert concludes that the defendant was not negligent, he or she will testify on the defendant’s behalf at trial.

Cause of Death is generally not disputed, because it is usually obvious that the victim died as a result of the accident. However, in rare cases in which the victim survives for days or weeks in the hospital before ultimately dying, the defendant might argue that it was not the accident that killed the victim, but rather an “intervening cause.” In such a case, the defendant will likely hire a medical expert to offer an opinion regarding the cause of death.

Because a motor vehicle homicide conviction results in a 15-year license loss (in addition to the possibility of jail time), you need to be represented by an attorney with extensive experience in litigating such cases. Attorney Spring has litigated several of these cases. Click here to read about the firm’s successful handling of a high-profile motor vehicle homicide case in Worcester County that ended in a not guilty verdict.