At a time when Maine distracted driving accidents are of growing concern, the state’s high court has lowered the proof burden for law enforcement officials in distracted driving crashes. The ruling, which applies to civil and administrative matters for distracted driving accident liability, holds it isn’t necessary to prove the driver’s specific diversion. Instead, the presentation of circumstantial evidence may be sufficient.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court weighed the case, stemming from a 2015 multiple-vehicle collision that resulted in the death of one of the vehicle occupants.
According to court records, it had been a clear day, the road was dry, and there was nothing that obstructed the defendant driver’s view on Route One in Woolwich. The driver of a truck was traveling northbound – in the same direction as a car up ahead, when the driver of the car activated his turn signal and slowed down to turn left. The car driver wasn’t able to turn immediately because of heavy southbound traffic, so he came to a full stop and waited for his chance. The car driver then looked up into his rearview mirror to see the truck driver approaching without slowing down. He then saw him swerve at the last second.
The impact of that stop pushed the driver’s car into the opposing lane of traffic, where it collided with a van. The van then spun around into the northbound lane, where it was struck by a sport utility vehicle. A passenger who was in the van died as a result of the injuries sustained.
When the truck driver was being interviewed by investigators, he told them he “looked up” and saw the car directly in front of him and tried to swerve away, but it was too late.
He was later cited by police for the traffic infraction of failure to maintain control of his vehicle. He was also later charged with the civil violation of motor vehicle violation resulting in death. The defendant contested the infraction and entered a “deny” plea to the civil violation charge. The cases were consolidated for a bench trial.
The court concluded that evidence showed the truck driver was distracted. While it was not proven to be something as definitive as reading a paper or text message, he was distracted by something, and had he been paying attention, he likely would have been able to avoid the collision. The court found the state proved its case of traffic infraction and civil violation by a preponderance of the evidence. For failure to maintain control of his vehicle, he was fined $119, and for the civil violation of motor vehicle violation resulting in death, his driver’s license was suspended for two years, and he was fined $2,500.
He appealed. He argued the trial court made an error of law when it ruled the state didn’t have to prove the activity he was doing that distracted him.
Specifically at issue is 29-A M.R.S. § 2118(2)(B), Maine’s failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle statute, which states in part that one fails to maintain control of a vehicle while distracted. Operation of a motor vehicle while distracted means the person was operating a vehicle while engaged in an act not necessary to that operation, and the act actually impaired – or would reasonably be expected to impair – the ability of the person to safely operate a vehicle.
The defendant argued the state should have to prove which activity distracted him in order to support a finding that he was distracted. However, justices at the state high court noted the legislature hadn’t limited the application of the statute to certain activities and noted that any activity could be deemed distracting if it wasn’t necessary to operation, and it actually impairs or would reasonably be expected to impair the person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
An attorney for The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, applauded the ruling because it will free both prosecutors and claimants from having to catch someone in the act of sending or reading a text, eating, or doing any other specific thing. Circumstantial evidence will be sufficient to prove distracted driving liability.
If you are a victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Ruling by Maine’s top court makes distracted driving easier to prove, Aug. 24, 2017, By David Sharp, Associated Press
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Maine Supreme Judicial Court: Murder on Highway Not “Accident” Per Insurance Policy, Sept. 1, 2017, Bangor Distracted Driving Accident Lawyer Blog