With Speed being the focus of Brake's Road Safety Week campaign this week, Claire Roantree, partner at Boyes Turner, considers the relevance of speed in fatal RTAs.
If a loved one is killed in a road traffic collision caused by a speeding driver, the responsible driver will usually be prosecuted in the criminal courts and speed will be an important factor when determining if the defendant should be convicted for Death by Careless Driving or Death by Dangerous Driving. But what if the responsible driver also dies and there is no-one to prosecute?
In this scenario, cause of death will be determined by the Coroner based upon the evidence presented by witnesses and experts at an Inquest. The Coroner can reach one of three conclusions (or verdicts) – road traffic collision, unlawful killing or open. The Coroner’s conclusion cannot attribute blame or name any individual person as responsible; the inquest is completely impartial and factual based on who, when, where and how someone has died. The death of a loved one cannot be registered until the inquest is complete.
So when might the manner of driving be bad enough to meet the criteria for a conclusion of unlawful killing?
We have recently represented the family of a young pregnant mother who was tragically killed after her car was struck from the rear by a speeding driver, who also died a few days later.
What is the definition of unlawful killing?
In English law, “unlawful killing” is a conclusion that can be reached at an inquest when someone has been killed without lawful excuse and in breach of criminal law. It is restricted to murder, manslaughter/gross negligence manslaughter and infanticide.
In driving cases, for an unlawful killing conclusion to be reached, the Coroner has to be satisfied that either the ingredients of gross negligence manslaughter are met, or a vehicle has been used as a weapon of assault and deliberately driven at a person who dies.
A conclusion of unlawful killing is not reached by the standards of the criminal offences of causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving.
What constitutes gross negligence manslaughter?
Gross negligence manslaughter occurs where the offence of murder is reduced to manslaughter by reason of lack of intent (or diminished responsibility or loss of control/provocation).
Gross negligence manslaughter is committed if ALL of the following criteria are met :
- A duty of care based on the ordinary principles of negligence is owed to the deceased.
- There has been a breach of that duty of care.
- The risk of death (not just risk of serious injury) is reasonably foreseeable and reasonable for the consequence of the misconduct.
- The breach caused death.
- Having regard to the risk of death involved, the misconduct was so “grossly negligent” as to be condemned as the serious crime of manslaughter.
All of the above elements must be proved beyond reasonable doubt (the criminal law standard) and must relate to one identifiable person, where the actions or admissions of that person cause or significantly contribute towards death. Driving cases may amount to gross negligence manslaughter if driving is sufficiently bad and there is proof of all elements of gross negligence manslaughter.
Each case will depend on its own facts. In our case, the defendant had been overtaking a succession of vehicles including a lorry, for at least mile crossing solid double white lines into the overtaking lane of the opposite carriageway. He was doing this in very heavy rain and poor visibility, at speeds in excess of 130 mph – over double the speed limit. Dash cam footage showed the speed and manner of driving in the moments before the crash and expert evidence gave the coroner an estimate of overtaking speed and impact speed.
Watch our video about this case here>>
The Coroner’s conclusion
The Coroner must be sure that the conclusion of unlawful killing is proved on the evidence and that all elements of the crime of gross negligence manslaughter are proved, beyond reasonable doubt. Otherwise the conclusion reached will be that of road traffic collision.
The Coroner will provide a short-form conclusion, although he may record a brief narrative if appropriate, for example, in cases of bad driving falling short of manslaughter. A narrative conclusion must be brief, neutral and factual regarding issues which are central to the cause of death and must not express any judgement or opinion. A brief narrative conclusion may help the bereaved family feel that the outcome of the inquest is appropriate for the incident that happened.
When can unlawful killing be used in relation to death by dangerous driving?
A conclusion of unlawful killing is rare in cases where death has been caused in a road traffic accident. It is reserved for truly abhorrent driving cases. The Coroner in our case described the manner of driving as “aggressive, audacious and abhorrent”.
If someone you know has been killed after a road traffic collision contact our specialist personal injury team to talk about how we can help you by email at email@example.com.