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Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Criminal Conviction for Trucker Accused of Causing Traffic Death – Oregon v. Lewis

By November 15, 2012Verdicts and Settlements

As a St. Louis semi truck accident lawyer, I handle lawsuits filed by the victims of trucking accidents, or their loved ones, against the people whose actions contributed to the cause of the crash. Sometimes these are cases that are also the subjects of criminal charges, but they don’t have to be charged criminally to create a lawsuit, and a lawsuit doesn’t necessarily mean there will be charges. In Oregon v. Lewis, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the conviction for criminal negligence of a truck driver who rear-ended a catering truck, pushing the catering truck into traffic, where the driver was killed by an oncoming logging truck. The driver was convicted after a bench trial, in which he was not permitted to suppress evidence of how he had been driving just before the crash. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and so did the Oregon high court, finding no error in the trial court’s interpretation of the criminal negligence law.
Defendant Devin Lewis was driving an empty tractor-trailer west on a rural highway when he approached the catering truck, stopped to make a left turn from the only westbound lane. Approaching in the eastbound lane were two logging trucks. The first logging truck passed the catering truck and noticed that Lewis was looking down, not at the road. As that driver passed, he saw Lewis sit up and look startled to see the catering truck. Shortly thereafter, he slammed on the brakes at 55 mph and went into a skid, hitting the rear corner of the catering truck and causing the crash that killed the driver. Another set of witnesses testified that Lewis had driven erratically earlier, tailgating a school bus and cutting off traffic near McMinnville. Lewis gave police a statement that didn’t match the physical evidence presented at trial. All of this led the judge in his bench trial to conclude that Lewis had the requisite state of mind for a finding of criminal negligence.
The appeal by Lewis argued first that testimony should not have been admitted from the witnesses who saw the earlier erratic driving. He argued that this was irrelevant and thus prejudicial. However, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that it was relevant. The question is whether prior conduct permits the court to infer the defendant’s state of mind. The high court said the erratic driving could lead to an inference that Lewis wasn’t paying enough attention to the road, and the risk of unfair prejudice was minimal. Turning to the verdict itself, the high court then upheld the guilty verdict against Lewis and the denial of his motion for a judgment of acquittal. Lewis argued for a higher standard to find “criminal negligence” under Oregon law; but the court found that the statute requires only a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care, not recklessness or “blameworthy” behavior. The record establishes that prosecutors met that standard, so the Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
The opinion doesn’t say whether the family of the catering truck driver is pursuing a separate lawsuit. However, as a Missouri tractor-trailer accident attorney, I’d like to note that families may pursue that kind of lawsuit even if the state has also decided to prosecute. If you’re not familiar with truck accidents, you may well wonder whether it’s a good idea to sue someone who is apparently already in prison. However, in this kind of case, the lawsuit typically also involves the trucking company that employed the driver, because that company often has some culpability for the crash. For example, if drivers are under pressure to make an impossible delivery schedule, they may drive in unsafe conditions or skip legally required rest breaks, creating dangers to everyone around them. As a southern Illinois big rig accident lawyer, I help clients consider whether a trucking company should be a defendant whenever I take a case.

If you or someone you love suffered serious injuries because of someone else’s carelessness behind the wheel of a large truck, you have the right to justice and financial compensation. Carey, Danis & Lowe focuses its practice on trucking accidents and has extensive experience helping clients get the compensation they need. To learn more or tell us your story, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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