Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Look Away: Court Finds Gross Negligence In A Momentary Diversion

On April 18, 2009, Defendant was driving her car on Route 5 in Dummerston, Vermont when she began scanning her dashboard GPS for a place to eat.  While her attention was diverted, Defendant’s car swerved onto the shoulder of the road for approximately two seconds where it struck and severely injured a bicyclist.  After police and paramedics arrived on the scene, Defendant admitted her inattention, which was confirmed by a driver traveling directly behind Defendant’s vehicle.

As a result of her actions, the Windham State’s Attorney charged Defendant with gross negligent operation of a vehicle pursuant to 23 V.S.A. Section 1091(b).  This statute defines gross negligence as “conduct which involve[s] a gross deviation from the care that a reasonable person would have exercised in that situation.”  

Defendant moved to dismiss the charge on the grounds that the State did not establish a prima facie case that her behavior amounted to gross negligent operation.  The trial court granted Defendant’s motion finding that although she did not pay attention to the roadway, her conduct only “amounted to a mere momentary distraction while driving.”  Despite the State’s further evidence, including Defendant’s excessive speed, the GPS’ warning not to use the device while driving and the responding officer’s opinion that Defendant was grossly negligent, the trial court upheld its decision. 

On appeal, the Court highlighted that while momentary inattention by itself is normally insufficient to warrant gross negligent operation, such inattention may be enough to allow a jury to find gross negligence if it occurs in a place where there is a great potential for immediate danger.  The Court emphasized that such rulings, as a matter of law, are difficult because of the importance each situation’s particular facts and circumstances play in determining the degree of negligence.  In this case, the Court found that a jury could have concluded that the timing of Defendant’s decision to take her eyes off the road at the same moment that she was closing in on a bicyclist in front of her was “a gross deviation from the care that a reasonable person would have exercised in that situation.”  Thus, it was error, based on the State’s evidence to dismiss the charge under § 1091, and the Court remanded for further proceedings. 

With the evolution of future technology, the Court will likely be faced with deciding many more cases involving the charge of gross negligent operation.

This may also put a crimp in any plans by automakers to replace the front windshield with a video screen.  

Danielle Pennetta

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