On January 5, 2020 a semi driver, Matthew Small, was driving a his semi-tractor and trailer on I-65 on the northwest suburbs of Indianapolis when he struck a line of stopped traffic.  According to Small, he was talking on the phone using a hands free device and drinking coffee and he was not aware of the stopped cars until the crash had already begun.  The crash tragically injured several motorists and killed three young people, including a very young child. As a result of the crash and the deaths, the Boone County Prosecutor’s has charged Small with three counts of Reckless Homicide.

Sadly, we’re all too familiar with this exact series of events.  As car accident attorneys in Indianapolis, we see it a lot actually.  What we don’t see very often is an at-fault driver being charged with Reckless Homicide for causing needless injury and death.

So, we wanted to take this opportunity to dive into what exactly reckless homicide is, how it is proven, and some examples of conduct that Indiana courts have said was and was not reckless homicide involving car crashes.

The most common kind of personal injury cases involve injuries arising from a car accident. Very rarely are those accidents also pursued criminally, absent the person causing the accident being intoxicated. Most of the time the at-fault driver is considered negligent, which means they didn’t treat the situation with the due care it deserved.  Common examples of this are following too closely, speeding, or running a red light.  The statute for reckless homicide, however, requires that the at-fault individual acted recklessly, not just negligently.

In Whitaker v. State a semi driver was convicted of reckless homicide in Gibson County, Indiana. Whitaker was following too closely and collided with the rear end of a vehicle, causing a crash that killed the other driver. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed his conviction of reckless homicide because there was no evidence that his conduct rose to the level of recklessness.  Negligent?  Absolutely.  But the court took the time to note that the Indiana legislature has not created the crimes of “negligent homicide” or “vehicular homicide.”  It takes something more to rise to the level of reckless homicide.

Reckless conduct as set out by the Indiana Code states that:  “A person engages in conduct ‘recklessly’ if he engages in the conduct in plain, conscious, and unjustifiable disregard of harm that might result and the disregard involves a substantial deviation from acceptable standards of conduct.” In Whitaker did the driver know that he was following too closely? Did he know that driving over five miles over the speed limit might result in the death of another driver?  And even if he did, was it so inherently dangerous that it could have supported a criminal conviction for reckless homicide?  The Indiana Court of Appeals apparently believed that it would not.

The second prong of recklessness involves “a substantial deviation from acceptable standards of conduct.” The Indiana Driver’s Manual states that it is a good idea to follow other cars at a distance of two to three seconds. Is this rule followed with prudence during rush hour? Not that we see. Traffic would be more backed up than it already is if every driver followed this general rule. It could be said that an acceptable standard of conduct is two to three seconds behind another vehicle, but is 1.5 seconds in stop and go traffic a substantial deviation? Probably not.  Is 1.5 seconds at 70 mph on I-465 a substantial deviation?  Could be, but there aren’t any bright lines here.

The Court in Whitaker also noted that proof that an accident arose out of inadvertence, lack of attention, forgetfulness, of from an error of judgement will not support a charge of reckless homicide. Below are some examples of these cases where reckless homicide did not stick:

  • attempting to pass another vehicle when the defendant’s view was obstructed, in violation of the reckless driving statute
  • driving through a light that freshly turned red when the driver is unable to stop in time
  • rear-ending a vehicle absent a showing that the driver knew he was following too closely and continued driving too closely anyway

It certainly is possible to convict an at-fault driver for reckless homicide, however.  Here are a few instances where the court ruled in favor of reckless homicide:

  • driving while intoxicated and substantially across the centerline for an extended period of time
  • a police officer driving through a flashing yellow light at 100 miles per hour without his lights or siren activated
  • driving 50 miles per hour down a narrow residential street with a 30 mile per hour speed limit and cars parked on both sides, while another person was standing on a running board, holding onto the driver’s side mirror
  • operating a vehicle on a very dark highway during the early morning hours without headlights
  • consuming alcohol and later driving around a corner at approximately 100 miles per hour
  • driving “erratically” and forty to fifty miles per hour where speed limit was thirty-five but snow and ice made twenty miles per hour the maximum safe speed
  • intentionally crossing the centerline for the purpose of greeting a friend according to a local custom

Tragic events similar to the one that took place on Sunday January 5, happen all the time, especially with semis. Big truck accidents often lead to big injuries and wrongful death.  Drivers need to be prudent and defensive. Always maintain a safe following distance.  And ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS be on the lookout, especially when in a traffic backup on the highway, and.

Be safe out there.