A commercial bus driver who was driving erratically, consuming coffee and energy drinks, and complaining about his lack of sleep and rest between driving assignments, was well aware of his impaired state in the hour before he crashed his bus in an accident that killed four people, and the Court of Appeals affirms the driver’s conviction on four counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-36.
Involuntary manslaughter in the operation of a vehicle is defined as an accidental killing which, although unintended, is the proximate result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard of human life.
This case presents the exact hypothetical situation warned of in Hargrove v. Commonwealth, 10 Va. App. 618 (1990). Defendant undertook a trip of substantial distance and time while in a tired and sleepy condition, and had been operating his vehicle for a number of hours in this impaired state when the bus crashed. At the time of the crash, the bus had been on the road for seven hours and still had at least three and one-half hours of travel time left before it would reach its destination in New York City.
Moreover, and more importantly, the evidence presented in this case demonstrates that defendant was aware that he was driving in an impaired state. Ample evidence establishes that he was tired and drowsy at the time of the crash and that he was aware of his impaired condition hours before the accident. Passengers testified that defendant appeared confused when they boarded the bus in Greensboro, N.C., at the beginning of the trip. Defendant also appeared agitated at the early bus stops, and was ill-tempered with several passengers. Although being confused, agitated and ill-tempered alone may not necessarily indicate tiredness or fatigue, these behaviors are symptoms of those conditions that at least suggest that defendant was tired early in the trip. Multiple passengers also saw defendant buy and consume coffee and energy drinks before and after the bus left South Hill.
Defendant’s awareness of his impaired state is established here by his own admissions. One passenger sitting behind defendant on the bus heard him tell an unknown party over the phone that he was tired and that he did not get enough rest due to his work schedule. Defendant also told the police officers investigating the accident that he felt tired before the crash.
Several passengers, one of them a professional bus driver, testified that defendant drove erratically for at least an hour before the accident. Defendant changed lanes without signaling, traveled at erratic speeds, and drove the bus in such a way that it swerved and leaned when it changed lanes. One passenger saw other vehicles pull off the highway to avoid the bus. Defendant also drove the bus across lines marking lanes of travel multiple times and hit the rumble strips on the side of the highway twice before the crash. Immediately before the crash, defendant’s driving was so erratic and unsafe that a truck driver called 911. Given the difficulty he had driving the bus during the hour before the crash, defendant should have realized that his impaired condition was affecting his driving and posing a risk to the safety of those on the bus.
Defendant is more culpable than the typical driver in this case due to the fact that he disregarded the risk that he would fall asleep while driving a bus. When a bus is driven negligently, this negligence threatens the safety of not only those traveling near the bus, but also the safety of the numerous passengers riding on the bus.
Cheung v. Commonwealth (Chafin) No. 0322-13-2, Feb. 11, 2014; Caroline County Cir.Ct. (Ellis) Taylor B. Stone for appellant; Katherine Q. Adelfio, AAG, for appellee. VLW 014-7-032, 12 pp.