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.

A recap of the July 12, 2014  Lt. Michael Andry Memorial Ride, by Ladendorf Law attorney Dan Ladendorf:

Approximately two hundred people – volunteers and participants alike – stood under partly cloudy skies waiting for the formal invocation to kick-off the Lt. Michael Andry Inaugural Memorial Ride. A young lady was invited to the microphone where she acknowledged Lt. Andry’s selfless actions when he came upon the scene of a crash several years ago and played a role in making her presence at this event in his memory even possible.  In his work, Lt. Andry touched the lives of many people in unforeseen ways and made his community a better place until a senseless crash on July 12, 2013 claimed his own life at the young age of 49.

Despite Saturday’s stormy forecast, the only thunder overheard at American Legion Post #10 in Marion, Indiana was the roar of one hundred motorcyclist departing for a 137 mile ride in memory of Lt. Andry, a twenty-one year veteran of the Grant County Sheriff’s Department.  A law enforcement escort accompanied the procession of bikes over the Salamonie Reservoir with a scheduled stop at Brandt’s Harley Davidson in Wabash.  The ride continued across the Mississinewa Reservoir, through Converse and into the Town of Swayzee, where Lt. Andry began his career in law enforcement as the Town Marshall.   A second stop in Greentown provided a short respite before riders passed byKnox Chapel Cemetery where Lt. Andry is laid to rest.  Upon returning to the Legion, afternoon activities included food and a silent auction.

Ladendorf Law was the primary sponsor of the ride and is grateful the Andry family invited our participation in the event, which promoted driver and motorcycle safety.  Ladendorf Law attorney Dan Ladendorf was on-hand at the Legion in the hours before the 11:00 a.m. ride commenced.  Proceeds from this year’s inaugural ride are earmarked for the benefit of two law enforcement related charities including the Grant County Sheriff Department’s “Sheriff’s Gifts for Kids” program and the Marion Fraternal Order of Police “Cops and Kids” program. Both charities assist less fortunate children during the Christmas season and were supported by Lt. Andry before his untimely death.

The inaugural Lt. Michael Andry Memorial Ride ride was held on the one year anniversary of Lt. Andry’s death, which was caused by the negligence of another driver who executed a left turn directly into and across the path of Lt. Andry’s motorcycle on SR 13 just north of Elwood, Indiana.  Lt. Andry’s family intends to continue the event each year in celebration of his life and in support of his commitment to the community in which he lived and worked.  Ladendorf Law looks forward to being along for the ride.

Like family.  Because we are.

dan + family

Dan Ladendorf hands this young lady a special “Ladendorf Law” kickstand puck.
Dan Ladendorf hands this young lady a special “Ladendorf Law” kickstand puck.

 

Kickstands up! Time to roll out for the 100+ mile ride.

 

Lt. Michael Andry Memorial Ride volunteers… hard at work!
Lt. Michael Andry Memorial Ride volunteers… hard at work!