In a 2-1 decision, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania decided Commonwealth v. Spotti, regarding aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol (“AA-DUI”, 75 Pa.C.S. §3735.1). The question at hand was, Can a driver be found guilty of Aggravated Assault while DUI for an accident that was not directly caused by his intoxication?
§ 3735.1. Aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence.
(a) Offense defined.–Any person who negligently causes
serious bodily injury to another person as the result of a
violation of section 3802 (relating to driving under influence
of alcohol or controlled substance) and who is convicted of
violating section 3802 commits a felony of the second degree
when the violation is the cause of the injury.
On April 16, 2008, then-17-year-old Roland Spotti was driving his truck on SR 376 East, a four-lane highway outside of Pittsburgh. Around 9:30pm that night multiple other drivers called 911 to report that Spotti’s truck was swerving and driving erratically. Steven Chung, one of the callers, followed Spotti until State Trooper Thomas W. Armour arrived. When Armour pulled past Chung to pull over the truck, Chung merged into the right lane to allow the Trooper to make the stop. Immediately thereafter, Spotti swerved into the right lane and abruptly applied his brakes, which led Chung to veer further to the right to avoid a collision. Unfortunately, Chung struck a disabled van that was on the side of the road, which then struck the tow truck that was there to assist the van. Richard Benchoff and Eric Hamilton, who were changing the tire on the van, were severely injured. Chung and his passenger/sister Susan were also injured. Spotti was found guilty of four counts of Aggravated Assault while DUI in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County and sentenced to 2-4 years incarceration. His blood alcohol content was .203%.
At first glance, it may seem that this case is rather straightforward: Spotti was driving drunk and swerved, causing another vehicle to get into an accident. Where things get tricky, however, is determining if Spotti was the actual cause of the accident, given that he did not actually collide with anyone.
To determine criminal liability in a case like this, the standard that the Commonwealth must meet is direct and substantial causation. Spotti’s intoxication and swerving was certainly a substantial cause of the accident: Had Spotti not been drinking or driving, the accident surely would not have occurred. But were Spotti’s actions a direct or indirect cause of the accident?
Spotti successfully argued that his intoxication was only an indirect cause of the accident. While his swerving did cause Chung to get into an accident, the Superior Court found this to be only an indirect and substantial cause. In effect, Chung broke the chain of causation. Spotti was found to be not criminally liable for AA-DUI.
This decision harkens back to what we all learned in Driver’s Education: You must always be in complete control of your vehicle and ready to avoid a collision with a bad driver. A similar situation would be a driver who aggressively applies his breaks and is rear-ended because the person behind him could not stop in time. While the person in front is clearly the one who is responsible, the law and insurance companies require that you be able to control your vehicle, even during these extraordinary circumstances. Chung’s accident was avoidable, breaking the chain of causation. If you were involved in a DUI accident, do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Fairlie & Lippy.