By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
A couple of months ago I wrote about an investigation I’d done on a case in which Betty Joyce Kuykendall ran a stop sign, collided with a car, and crash that led to the death of the male driver in the other car.
Because of the timing of various steps of the investigation, the only charge brought against Kuykendall was a stop-sign violation, for which she promptly paid a $100 fine. (See the NewSpin column in the May 20 P.U.L/P., online at www.pueblopulp.com, for more about the case).
One reason the case for vehicular manslaughter or any other criminal charges could not be brought against Kuykendall was because St. Mary-Corwin hospital reported that all injuries related to the accident were not serious, even though they ultimately led to William Dorough’s death.
So I wrote to District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, asking whether or not the hospital could be held legally responsible for the death in any way. The following includes excerpts from his response:
“The case is closed,” writes Thiebaut. “The hospital or its medical staff will not be charged. However, a civil action may be filed against the hospital or its medical staff, or other persons or entities.”
“It has been said: There is no crime, there is no punishment, without law (Nullen crimen, nulla poena, sine lege).
“Every crime involves a wrongful act (actus reus) specifically prohibited by the criminal law. In most cases, the law requires that the wrongful act be accompanied by criminal intent (mens rea).
“The actus reus may take the form of an omission or failure to perform an act obliged by law, but the act or duty to act must be specifically required by law; it must have been possible for the person to have performed, and, in some cases, the person must have been aware of his duty to act.
“The mens rea or culpable state of mind accompanying the actus reus can include criminal negligence …. This state of mind is generally sufficient only where there is a conscious disregard of a substantial risk of which a reasonable man would have been aware.
“Finally, there must be a causal relationship between the act and the harm or loss suffered. The act must be both actually and legally the cause of the harm. Actual causation can use the ‘but-for’ test. In other words, would the harm have occurred whether or not the accused had acted? The legal causation is determined by a number of tests. For example, the cause must have played a substantial factor in bringing about the results.”
Within these legal limits, the hospital has not been found to be legally liable for the death. Did they screw up? It seems so, but not with any intent to do harm as outlined above. Did the accident, caused by Kuykendall, lead to Dorough’s death? Most everyone involved seems to be in agreement that it did. However, because of double jeopardy, and since Kuykendall paid the fine for the initial ticket for running the stop sign before charges could be adjusted, she can’t be charged for anything else related to the incident.
So what recourse, if any, does Dorough’s family have?
“A civil wrong…is dealt with under different standards” explains Thiebaut, “and seeks to make whole the injured or aggrieved party through appropriate remedies, including money damages.”
In short, the family can sue everyone from the hospital to Kuykendall herself, provided they have the motivation and resources to do so. And of course, even if they win a civil case (or cases), appeals can drag on for years, costing tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyer fees.
Ultimately, nothing will bring William Dorough back. He’s gone, and no doubt, Ms. Kuykendall grieves the accidental death along with Dorough’s family. Justice, whether it takes the form of civil damages or jail time, are cold comfort for those who have lost someone they love.
Little, if any, legal recourse can bring families the peace and resolution that they seek in such cases. However, when left with nothing other than personal civil suits to seek restitution or some sense of justice, it’s a symptom of a legal system that has failed its people.