This week’s question comes from Jane in San Rafael, who asks:
Q:“I am an avid bicyclist and supporter of the Marin and San Francisco Bike Coalitions. It is frightening to ride on city streets. Last week, there was a DUI related fatality in Marin and another bike death in Windsor. What does the law do to punish people that kill bicyclists? Maybe letting readers know of the penalties might help them think twice and prevent more of these deaths.”
A: Jane, as a supporter of the Marin, Oakland, and San Francisco Bike Coalitions who rides with his children, I am horrified to see the increase in injury and death occurring in the cycling community. I am intimately familiar with the case in Windsor: we have been retained to represent the family of the young woman who was killed by a large truck. The Marin case, involving the drunk driver, is very tragic: people ruining their own lives by drinking is a shame, and when they kill an innocent person, it’s criminal.
Accidental deaths caused by motor vehicles generally fall under the rubric of vehicular manslaughter and, if the driver acts with gross negligence and wanton, conscious disregard for human life, may also be prosecuted as murder. California Penal Code Section 192(c) defines vehicular manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being while: (1) driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act (not a felony); or (2) driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner. Additionally, causing death while perpetrating an accident insurance scheme, where the vehicular collision was knowingly caused for financial gain, may be tried as either vehicular manslaughter or murder. If the driver is acting lawfully in a lawful manner, a resulting death is not considered a homicide.
According to California Penal Code Section 193, the sentencing and punishment for vehicular manslaughter depends upon whether the offense is charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter conviction is punishable by up to one year in county jail. A felony vehicular manslaughter conviction is punishable by up to six years in state prison. We have recently handled a case on Highway 680 where a slow-moving construction crane, without its lights on and without warning or guides, entered the freeway from a staging area directly into 65 mph traffic, causing death when another driver collided into the rear of the crane. In that case, the defendant crane driver plead no contest to vehicular manslaughter and was subject to a year of house arrest. The driver and the insurance company representing the business paid many millions to compensate the family for the loss of their husband/father.
Cases where the driver was intoxicated causing death often command more severe penalties. Under California Vehicle Code 23152, it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug to drive a vehicle while intoxicated, presumed at a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more, by weight. Commercial drivers, and drivers carrying passengers in exchange for compensation (taxis, Uber, Lyft, etc.) are presumed to be intoxicated if they have a blood alcohol level of .04 percent or more. Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, if committed without malice is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for up to four years; with malice, for up to 10 years. A person with one or more prior convictions of drunk or reckless driving who causes a fatality is subject to imprisonment in state prison for a term of 15 years to life.
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated may be charged even if the driver’s blood alcohol level does not exceed the legal limit, as well as when an impaired driver is not the sole cause of death. In one case, a man with a blood alcohol level of .03 percent was traveling late at night on his way home from a concert, proceeded to fall asleep and rear-ended a car. After the initial accident, the occupants were able to get safely to the shoulder, but a truck driver, not paying attention, swerved to avoid collision with the car and killed the passenger of one of the vehicles. The impaired driver who caused the initial collision was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Vehicular manslaughter cases I have handled have involved people from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The law doesn’t discriminate between a rich guy driving a Porsche and a poor laborer driving a beat-up pickup truck. District Attorneys have little sympathy for drunks or unlawful drivers who cause harm or death.
I hope that anyone reading this will refrain from driving even if they have had “only a couple of beers.” My heart and prayers go out to the families of the bicyclists who have been so senselessly killed.
Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email Chris questions and topics for future articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no free or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.