By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Manslaughter is governed by Tex.Pen.C. 19.04(a) which says, “A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.”
It’s easy to over-simplify, but let’s break this down.
Here’s what the law says about how a person “recklessly” causes the death of another
–There is a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his conduct will cause that death;
–The risk is of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exer- cise under all the circumstances as viewed from the person’s standpoint; and
–The person is aware of but consciously disregards that risk.
Here’s what the law says about how someone “causes” the death of an individual:
–The conduct of Defendant was clearly sufficient to cause the death of the person; and/or
–Any and all other concurrent causes were clearly insufficient, by themselves, to cause the death of the person.
The word “recklessly” is the lynchpin of vehicular manslaughter cases. In essence, it means someone knew about the risk, yet made the conscious decision to ignore the risk. Does texting while driving, eating while driving, or some other form of distracted driving rise to this level? It’s in the eye of the beholder — a subjective case by case determination which is the terrifying grey area where these cases live for those accused of vehicular manslaughter.
Law students are taught causation is extremely complex very early in their first year in tort law.
The test in vehicular homicide cases in Texas is essentially two-fold. “But for” the defendant’s acts, the death would not have occurred is only part of the test. What happens when the other driver either causes the accident or — even more confusingly — makes lesser mistakes which largely contribute to their own death?
For example: Driver 1 is texting while driving incessantly and drifts into driver 2’s lane of traffic forcing driver 2 into a barrier. Driver 2 is impaired and due to their impairment can’t react quickly enough to save their own lives.
Driver 2’s impairment is what is known as a “concurrent cause.” So we know “but for” driver 1’s texting and drifting into the other lane — Driver 2 would be alive. The question then is whether driver 2’s impairment was insufficient on its own to cause their own death.
My example is pretty simplified — but my guess is even then a jury could chew on this question for some time and come up with different opinions.
Summation on Vehicular Manslaughter
There’s no such thing as a simple case of manslaughter when it comes to texting while driving or distracted driving. Each is highly technical both legally and emotionally. I hope this article helps it make sense.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and was designated as a Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters in 2019.