The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a woman’s convictions for manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a child for her involvement in a car accident that killed her two young nephews. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hardy.
The defendant was caring for her four-year-old and 16-month-old nephews in June of 2014 when she decided to drive them to a family member’s house. She had a four-door sedan and her two nephews and her four-year-old son were riding in the back seat. The four-year-old nephew was riding in the middle seat but was not secured in a booster seat as required by Massachusetts law. The 16-month-old nephew was seated in a front-facing safety seat, when the seat should have been facing the rear of the vehicle. The defendant was driving the speed limit on a four-lane highway in Brimfield. Ahead of her was a dump truck that was stopped and waiting to take a left-hand turn (with its turn signal activated). The defendant apparently failed to see the truck and avoided a collision by swerving at the last second, which resulted in her car hitting a guard rail, careening into the oncoming lanes of traffic, and crashing head-on into another vehicle. Accident reconstruction experts determined the defendant had not applied her brakes at any point prior to the collision. Her two nephews were killed by the impact. The defendant and her son were seriously injured but survived. A Hampden County Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of: two counts of negligent motor vehicle homicide; one count of reckless endangerment of a child; and one count of manslaughter. She was sentenced to serve one year in jail (followed by a period of probation). On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded the manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a child convictions were not supported by the evidence. The two negligent motor vehicle homicide convictions were affirmed.
Manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a child each require proof the defendant acted wantonly or recklessly. In the context of motor vehicle accidents, the SJC and Appeals Court have ruled the following types of conduct constitute wantonness or recklessness: weaving, following too closely, and passing other vehicles; leading police on a high-speed chase through busy streets at rush hour; and choosing to drive while visibly drunk and continuing to drive after hitting a pedestrian. In each of these circumstances, there was a high degree of likelihood that the conduct would result in substantial harm to another person. In this case, the SJC upheld the defendant’s negligent homicide convictions, finding her apparent inattentiveness that led to the accident constituted negligence. However, general inattentiveness alone does not support a finding of recklessness. The Court also rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that failing to secure the four-year-old nephew in a booster seat constituted recklessness, because no reasonable person would have been aware that failing to use a booster seat in these circumstances was highly likely to result in substantial harm. Recklessness, said the Court, is more than a mistake of judgement or even gross negligence.