In some cases, an accident can excuse your conduct if someone was injured or killed as a result. You would have to show:
- You lacked the intent to harm another person
- Your actions were not “culpable” negligence1
- You were acting lawfully at the time
Many accidents are the result of negligent conduct but so long as you were acting lawfully at the time, you may not be found criminally liable.
To be excused from a criminal act, the lack of intent is vital. Intent can be specific or general with some crimes requiring specific intent, such as the crime of perjury that requires a specific intent to lie after giving an oath to tell the truth. General intent might be punching someone with the intent to cause harm but not to cause them blindness when you struck them in the eye.
If you did intend to blind the person or at least cause serious bodily injury by using a sharp instrument to attack the person’s face, it would be aggravated assault and/or mayhem rather than simple assault.
An example of lack of intent often occurs with domestic violence – PC 273.5 or in bar fights. A couple gets into an argument and one of them smashes a plate against the wall in anger. A piece of the dish then strikes the other person in the eye causing a serious eye injury.
Another example is a person in a bar who gets upset with a patron who is taunting and pushing him lightly. The defendant, while trying to leave, accidentally bumps into the taunter causing the taunter to fall backwards over his bar stool and hit his head on the floor. He suffers a brain hemorrhage and dies.
In both cases, neither defendant intended to cause the other serious harm and should not be charged with assault under penal code 240 or homicide. In the domestic violence example, prosecutors may proceed on a theory of transferred intent in that the defendant intended to smash the plate and it was a foreseen consequence that this could result in an accidental injury to a nearby party.
In the latter example, there is no criminal intent. The defendant was trying to remove himself from the situation and never intended to touch the patron. Nor was it foreseeable that the defendant’s movements could have resulted in the death of the taunter.
Under Penal Code Section 195, a homicide is excused if:
- Committed by accident and misfortune, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent.
- When committed by accident and misfortune, in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, when no undue advantage is taken, nor any dangerous weapon used, and when the killing is not done in a cruel or unusual manner.
This has been discussed in a number of California cases including People v. Lara2 In cases where the defendant relies on a defense that is not inconsistent with the defendant’s theory of the case that the death was an accident and where there is substantial evidence to support it, then the trial court must instruct the jury on the accident defense. In other words, an instruction on evidence that an accident or misfortune was the cause of the homicide must be given.
In the above example of the bar fight, the action that precipitated the death–the pushing–was done because of sudden or sufficient provocation. There was no undue advantage taken or weapon used and the act was not done in a cruel or unusual manner. Thus, the victim’s falling over the bar stool may have been intended but the defendant did not intend to cause fatal injuries.
Culpable negligence is criminal negligence rather than ordinary3. It is willful or reckless conduct or disregarding known and obvious risks to life or safety. Ordinary negligence might be making an unsafe lane change or not properly stacking some items in a grocery store that suddenly collapses and hurts someone.
A real life example is the case of Michael Jackson’s physician who was administering a powerful anesthetic to him at Jackson’s residence but which proper and safe medical protocol was to do so in a clinic or hospital so that the patient could be monitored because of the high risk of complications. Because of the lack of a monitoring device, the singer succumbed when he began experiencing adverse reactions from the drug.
The physician was charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which requires proof of criminal negligence. A jury determined that it was foreseeable that such complications could occur and administering the powerful drug without safeguards demonstrated a disregard for known and obvious risks to life.
You can also face criminal charges even though you may have acted with ordinary negligence in causing a death. In the case of a motorist who reaches into the back of his car and fails to see or stop for a pedestrian who died as a result, his action in looking away from the roadway was only ordinary negligence.
He may have lacked the intent to harm but but it was still unlawful. This also may not automatically excuse him from being charged with vehicular manslaughter under PC 192(c)(2) where gross negligence is a required element since he was aware that driving while distracted could cause death. A better case for gross negligence is if the motorist was driving while impaired although texting while driving is increasingly being seen as conduct that constitutes culpable negligence.
One of the requirements for an accident to act as a defense to a criminal act is that you must have been acting lawfully at the time. If you were exercising caution or acting responsibly or reasonably under the circumstances but some misfortune occurred that was not a result of your own actions, then the resulting harm would not be considered your fault.
For instance, a motorist comes to an intersection with turn signal on waits for pedestrians to her right to clear the crosswalk. Suddenly, a bicyclist comes up from the rear of the vehicle and attempts to pass her car on the right as the car is turning and is struck, causing the bicyclist to fall and suffer a fatal head injury4. In this situation, the motorist acted lawfully and without intent to harm. If, however, the motorist saw the bicyclist approaching and wanted to teach the cyclist a lesson by turning in front of her, then she could be considered to have acted with intent or at least with criminal negligence.
Question: If I am acting in self-defense but accidentally kill the person, will my actions be excused?
Response: That depends on what you were doing to defend yourself. If someone was only punching you and you pulled out a gun and shot them, you could be found to have used unreasonable or disproportionate force unless you can show that your life was endangered. But, if there was no longer any threat from the attacker and you took a shot at him, meaning only to hit his leg, but it caused a clot that killed him, you might be found criminally liable.
Question: I was charged with a crime for running a stop sign and hitting another car and killing the motorist. However, the stop sign was obscured by a truck that had parked in front of it. Can I assert that the accident was not my fault and should be excused from criminal fault?
Response: Parking near the stop sign is a violation so you have a valid defense that the accident was not caused by negligence or unlawful conduct on your part but by someone else’s wrongful conduct. It might also depend on whether you had been at this intersection before and knew that a stop sign was there.
Question: I had a heart attack while driving and lost control of my car, striking another motorist and causing serious injuries. Can my heart attack excuse me from civil or criminal liability?
Response: If you were otherwise acting lawfully and had not been advised by your doctor to refrain from driving because of your medical condition, then your heart attack could be considered as a defense referred to as “sudden medical emergency” rather than an accident as a legal excuse. Nonetheless, the principles are similar as your heart attack could be construed as an unforeseen event and excuse you from liability.
Question: Does a true accident always excuse criminal liability?
Response: Few events are so pure or true though serious and fatal accidents happen because of unforeseen events or acts of God. For instance, if you were operating a boat and knew a storm was approaching but did not tell anyone and continued to sail with passengers who were thrown overboard in the storm, this is not an accident from which you may be excused because of foreseeable risks from the storm. But if the storm suddenly appeared without warning from forecasters and a passenger decided to go on deck to retrieve something despite your warning him to remain below and he was tossed overboard, then the accident could be a legal defense.
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- California Penal Code 26 – Persons who committed the act or made the omission charged through misfortune or by accident, when it appears that there was no evil design, intention, or culpable negligence. [↩]
- People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App. 4th 102, 110 and People v. Brucker (1983) 148 Cal. App. 3d 230. [↩]
- People v. Thurmond (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 865, 873; People v. Peabody, supra, 46 Cal.App.3d at p. 47, 119 Cal.Rptr. 780. [↩]
- People v. McLachlan (1939) 36 Cal.App.2d Supp. 754 [↩]