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Fatal accidents and criminal charges: a San Diego case

A person’s mental state is invariably a tricky concept in the law.

This is particularly true in the criminal law, where mental illness is potentially a defense to some charges. In civil cases, however, the bar is not as high as in criminal cases. If someone’s negligent driving causes an accident that injures others, the law allows the injured person to proceed with the case, regardless of the mental state of the person who caused the injury.

Still, it is important to be aware of how the law responds to accidents – particularly fatal ones – in which someone’s mental competency is at issue. And so, in this post, we will take note of a San Diego case involving a man convicted of vehicular homicide after running a red light while high on methamphetamine.

The accident that the man caused was a fatal one. It involved a collision with a fire truck that resulted in the death of the man’s 19-year-old passenger.

The man pleaded guilty last year to a charge of gross vehicular manslaughter. But he has not been sentenced and a hearing on his mental competency is scheduled for today.

From time to time, high-profile cases galvanize the public’s attention on this question. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, for example, a “guilty-but-mentally-ill” verdict in the trial of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. created a national conversation about mental illness as a defense in criminal cases.

Again, however, let us reiterate that there is a key distinction between civil and criminal cases on the question of mental state. In a wrongful-death case brought by the passenger in the San Diego case, mental competency of the driver would not be a viable defense.

Source: CBS8, "Hearing for DUI driver in deadly fire truck crash," Jan. 22, 2014

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