The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that circumstantial evidence may be sufficient to prove civil violations in fatal distracted driving accidents. The ruling states that direct evidence of what activity distracted the driver is not necessarily a prerequisite for finding a civil violation.
The court’s decision comes at a time when accidents involving distracted drivers are on the rise. In April, the Portland Press Herald published a story titled ‘Is everyone texting and driving now?’. According to state data, last year approximately 750 drivers who got into crashes on Maine roads were found to have been texting or talking on their cell phones at the time of the accident.
Law enforcement officials said that the figures don’t accurately reflect the extent of the problem. They pointed out that distracted drivers can be seen everywhere, heads bowed as they scan their phones, GPS devices, and other electronics.
State of Maine vs. Thomas E. Palmer
The case reviewed by the state’s highest court arose from a 2015 multi-vehicle accident that left one person dead. On August 13, 2015, at around 4:30 p.m., truck driver Thomas Palmer was driving north on Route One in Woolwich when a car ahead of him activated the turn signal and slowed down in preparation for turning left. The car’s driver, who could not turn due to southbound traffic volume, looked in his rearview mirror and saw Palmer’s truck approaching at full speed.
Palmer did swerve at the last second, but not before pushing the car into the opposite lane, where it crashed into a van. A passenger in the van was killed when it spun into the northbound lane and struck a sport utility vehicle.
When interviewed by investigators, Palmer said he “looked up” and saw the car in front of him, but could not swerve away in time. He was cited for the traffic infraction of failure to maintain control of his vehicle and was also charged with a motor vehicle violation resulting in death.
The Distracted Driving Ruling
At the ensuing bench trial, the judge found that Palmer was distracted at the time of the accident. The specific nature of the distraction was not articulated by the court and neither side requested specific findings.
The court imposed a $119 fine for the traffic infraction and a $2,500 fine for the civil violation. The court suspended his driver’s license for two years.
Palmer appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred by not requiring the state to identify and prove the activity that caused the distraction. The justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.
29-A M.R.S. A.§ 2118(2)(B) defines the operation of a motor vehicle while distracted as engaging in an activity:
- Not necessary to operation of the vehicle AND
- That impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability to drive safely.
Noting that Palmer himself said he “looked up” (suggesting that his eyes were not on the road ahead), the justices affirmed the trial court’s verdict, stating that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support an inference that Palmer was distracted at the time of the crash.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Many advocates of safer driving practices have applauded the decision because prosecutors do not necessarily need direct proof that someone was in the act of texting, or was in the act of talking on the phone, or was engaging in some other specific activity not necessary to operation of the vehicle.
Circumstantial evidence may be enough in some cases to prove a civil violation.
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If you are injured by a distracted driver in Maine, contact Fales & Fales, P.A. We have a successful history of holding parties responsible for their negligence. We will work to get you the compensation you need to recover and rebuild after the accident.