This is an audio case brief of State v. Lamprey, 821 A.2d 1080 (N.H. 2003). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
Nancy Lamprey operated a child daycare center in her home. For a number of years, she cared for pre-school-age children during the day and provided after-school care to school-age children. Lamprey would meet the school-age children in the afternoon at the bus stop where the school bus dropped them off, sometimes walking to the bus stop and other times driving her pickup truck. When Lamprey drove the truck, the children routinely rode back to her house in the truck bed. According to testimony at trial, on one occasion not long before the accident, a parent saw children riding in the bed of Lamprey’s truck and complained to her.
On September 14, 2000, Lamprey drove her truck to the bus stop and picked up six children. Three of the children were six years old and three were ten years old. At the bus stop, she opened the gate to the bed of the truck and all six children climbed into the bed. No child seats or safety belts were in place in the truck bed.
On the drive to Lamprey’s home, the truck left the road and struck a tree. All six children suffered injuries, and one of the children, Katie Silva, died.
According to the State, the accident occurred while Lamprey was driving so-called “swervies” to entertain the children. When performing swervies, Lamprey would steer the truck back and forth in a zigzag pattern. The State introduced testimony from three children that Lamprey was doing swervies just before the accident, as well as testimony by police officers about tire marks they observed on the road leading to the site of the accident. According to expert testimony for the State, no mechanical problem with the truck contributed to the accident. Lamprey stated she did not remember doing swervies on the day of the accident but, if she did so, it was because there was a dog in the road. She contended that a mechanical defect in the truck caused an unexpected acceleration resulting in the accident. She also argued that the tire tracks were too contaminated by other vehicles for the State’s witnesses to have drawn reliable conclusions.
Lamprey was charged with manslaughter, misdemeanor reckless conduct, and four counts of first-degree assault. She was convicted of the charged.
Lamprey appealed her conviction. On appeal, she argued that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the element of causation.
The issue is whether the trial court’s jury instruction on causation too restrictively defined the circumstances in which an intervening cause warrants acquittal.
To establish causation, the State need to prove not only that the prohibited result would not have occurred but for the conduct of the defendant, but also that the defendant’s conduct was the legal (or proximate) cause of the prohibited result. A legal cause is the cause without which the event would not have occurred, and the predominating cause, and a substantial factor from which the event follows as a natural, direct and immediate consequence.
The trial court instructed the jury that, the element of legal causation is defeated by an intervening cause only when the intervening cause amounts to the “sole substantial cause” of the prohibited result.
Lamprey argued that this instruction is contrary to New Hampshire law and thus a violates her right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. First, she argues that the language provided by the trial court failed to instruct the jury on legal causation in accordance with State v. Seymour, and second, that the standard for defeating legal causation provided by the trial court was appropriate for cases involving responsive intervening causes and inappropriate for coincidental intervening causes such as the instant case.
But the court disagreed with her.
First, the court addressed whether the jury instruction was in accord with Seymour. The trial court in Seymour stated that “a legal cause is the cause without which the event would not have occurred, and the predominating cause, a substantial factor from which the event follows as a natural, direct and immediate consequence.”
The jury instruction described legal causation using the following language:
a cause that is a direct and substantial factor in bringing about that death and/or injuries … not merely a possible cause or a contributing cause…. It must be the predominant cause without which the results would not have occurred…. [T]he State [must] prove that the victim’s death and/or injuries were a direct result of the defendant’s actions….
Here, the court found that the jury instruction provided by the trial court, considered as a whole, adequately stated the relevant law as set forth in Seymour.
The court explained that while the language used by the trial court in Seymour is preferable, the jury instruction in this case made clear that the legal cause must be the predominant cause and a substantial factor in bringing about the prohibited result. Further, the instruction that the prohibited result must be the “direct result” of the defendant’s actions is substantially the same as the “natural, direct and immediate consequence” instruction in Seymour.
Next, the court addressed whether the “sole substantial cause” standard used by the trial court is the correct standard for legal causation under New Hampshire law in cases involving coincidental intervening causes.
The court explained that The “sole substantial cause” standard for legal causation has previously been used in criminal negligence cases. As the defendant points out in her brief, the trial court applied the “sole substantial cause” standard of Soucy, “though Lamprey’s case involved no question of medical malpractice.”
Notwithstanding Soucy, the defendant argues that the “sole substantial cause” language of Soucy should be limited largely to “medical malpractice intervening causes.” The defendant argues that an intervening cause that is a coincidence—a cause that occurs simultaneously with the defendant’s act—should be treated differently from an intervening act that is a response to the defendant’s prior act. She contends that when the intervening cause is a response to the defendant’s act, as in Soucy, a greater degree of culpability is appropriate because the defendant’s act placed the victim in danger of the subsequent act (e.g., medical negligence) occurring. However, when the intervening cause is coincidental (such as the alleged unexpected acceleration in this case), the defendant argues that a lesser degree of culpability is appropriate because the intervening cause arose independently of the defendant’s acts.
To apply this distinction, the defendant argues that the jury should have been instructed that there is no legal causation when an intervening cause contributes to the resulting death or injury. Under the defendant’s proposed instruction, the defendant should be acquitted if there exists a coincidental intervening cause which itself is a “but for” cause of the accident, even if the coincidental intervening cause is not the sole substantial cause of the accident. The defendant does not cite, nor are we aware of, any New Hampshire cases in which we have made such a distinction.
But the court disagreed with her:
The court explained that we believe that the defendant’s proposed instruction makes an unwarranted distinction in degrees of criminal culpability. Often the risk of a particular kind of contributing coincidental intervening cause is the very risk that made the conduct reckless in the first place. For example, if one were to pick up a loaded handgun, ensure that the safety is engaged, aim at a bystander and pull the trigger, it does not follow that a mechanical failure of the safety should exculpate the defendant if he kills the bystander. Yet, under the instruction proposed by the defendant, a jury would be instructed that if it found the intervening cause to be coincidental and if that cause contributed to the resulting death, then the jury should return a verdict of not guilty. We believe the “contributed to” standard, as proposed by the defendant, would be an inappropriate test to determine criminal culpability. We hold that the “sole substantial cause” instruction given by the trial court, and set forth in Soucy, is the correct standard under New Hampshire law as applied to the facts of this case.
Defendants conviction was affirmed because the district court properly instructed the jury on the sole substantial cause instructions.