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State v. Frahm

Supreme Court of Washington

July 11, 2019

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
JOSHUA CANE FRAHM, Petitioner.

          OWENS, J.

         A drunk driver struck and disabled another vehicle, then fled into the early morning darkness. A Good Samaritan stopped to help the vehicle that had been struck. While helping, the Good Samaritan sustained fatal injuries due to a secondary accident. We are asked whether, as a matter of law, the drunk driver's acts were too attenuated from the Good Samaritan's death for criminal liability to attach. We conclude that the drunk driver's acts were the legal cause of the Good Samaritan's death because those acts were criminal, caused direct harm as well as risk of further harm, and occurred close in time and location to the ultimate harm that befell the Good Samaritan. We further conclude that the issue of intervening, superseding cause was proper for the jury to determine as a matter of actual cause using a reasonable foreseeability standard and that the vehicular homicide conviction is supported by sufficient evidence. Accordingly, we hold that the drunk driver's acts proximately caused the Good Samaritan's death, and we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Shortly before 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 2014, Joshua Cane Frahm was intoxicated and drove his truck erratically at a high rate of speed on several freeways in Vancouver, Washington. Two different motorists called 911 to report Frahm's dangerous driving, which included cutting off a vehicle and nearly rear-ending several others. Frahm was going 85 m.p.h. when he rear-ended a vehicle driven by Steven Klase. The impact propelled Klase's vehicle into the median barrier and caused it to spin and ricochet, leaving it disabled across the left and middle lanes. Frahm fled the scene without stopping to render aid to Klase, who was seriously injured in the collision.

         Richard Irvine was driving the same direction on the same freeway that morning and witnessed the collision. Irvine pulled his sedan over onto the right shoulder of the freeway, activated his emergency flashers, exited his sedan, and crossed the freeway on foot to render aid to Klase, who remained trapped inside his vehicle. Irvine called 911 from his cell phone and was on the line with emergency dispatchers when Klase's vehicle was struck a second time by a minivan. The driver of the minivan had shifted into the left lane when he saw the flashers of Irvine's car on the right shoulder, but the driver did not notice Klase's disabled vehicle in the still-dark morning until it was too late to avoid hitting it. The second impact to Klase's vehicle from the minivan propelled Klase's vehicle into Irvine, throwing Irvine approximately 20 feet across the roadway and causing him to sustain severe brain and spinal injuries. Irvine died 12 days later as a result of his injuries and pneumonia.

         The State charged Frahm with half a dozen crimes associated with the incident, including vehicular homicide. The case proceeded to a jury trial. The trial court allowed the issue of intervening, superseding cause to go to the jury. The trial court instructed the jury according to 11A Washington Practice: Washington Pattern Jury Instructions: Criminal 90.08, at 278 (4th ed. 2016) (WPIC), which stated in relevant part:

[I]f a proximate cause of the death was a new independent intervening act of the deceased or another which the defendant, in the exercise of ordinary care, should not reasonably have anticipated as likely to happen, the defendant's act is superseded by the intervening cause and is not a proximate cause of the death. .. .
However, if in the exercise of ordinary care, the defendant should reasonably have anticipated the intervening cause, that cause does not supersede the defendant's original act and the defendant's act is a proximate cause. It is not necessary that the sequence of events or the particular injury be foreseeable. It is only necessary that the death fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should have reasonably anticipated.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 106 (Instr. 12). Frahm objected to that instruction.

         The jury found Frahm guilty of vehicular homicide, as well as vehicular assault, hit-and-run, conspiracy to commit perjury, and false reporting. Frahm appealed his convictions, arguing, among other claims, that the State presented insufficient evidence to support his conviction for vehicular homicide. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted review. State v. Frahm, 191 Wn.2d 1026 (2018).

         ISSUE

         Did Frahm's acts proximately cause Irvine's death? a. Were Frahm's acts the legal cause of Irvine's death? b. Does sufficient evidence support Frahm's vehicular homicide conviction when the jury was charged with the issue of intervening, superseding cause and instructed to apply a reasonable foreseeability standard?

         ANALYSIS

         Frahm's challenge to his vehicular homicide conviction has taken different forms during his appeal. Though Frahm objected to use of the pattern jury instruction at trial, he did not assign error to the instruction on appeal. Rather, Frahm argued that insufficient evidence supported his conviction. In his petition for review, Frahm argued that the foreseeability standard applied by the Court of Appeals erroneously heightened the threshold for a superseding cause. In his supplemental brief, Frahm challenged use of a tort-derived foreseeability standard to determine liability for vehicular homicide, as well as sufficiency of the evidence underlying his conviction. Properly before us is whether sufficient evidence supports Frahm's conviction for vehicular homicide.

         When reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State and determine whether "any rational trier of fact could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Salinas, 119 Wn.2d 192, 201, 829 P.2d 1068 (1992). We review questions of law de novo. State v. Johnson, 128 Wn.2d 431, 443, 909 P.2d 293 (1996).

         Proximate Cause

         Vehicular homicide is defined as follows:

(1) When the death of any person ensues within three years as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by the driving of any vehicle by any person, the driver is guilty of vehicular homicide if the driver was operating a motor vehicle:
(a) While under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug, as defined by RCW 46.61.502; or
(b) In a reckless manner; or
(c) With disregard for the safety of others.

RCW 46.61.520. Vehicular homicide is a strict liability offense. See State v. Rivas, 126 Wn.2d 443, 451-53, 896 P.2d 57 (1995). "[T]he conduct of the defendant must be both (1) the actual cause, and (2) the 'legal' . . . cause" of the death. Id. at 453. In Washington, unlike other jurisdictions, we use the term "proximate cause" to refer to both prongs of causation together. See Hartley v. State, 103 Wn.2d 768, 777, 698 P.2d 77 (1985) ("Washington law recognizes two elements to proximate cause: Cause in fact and legal causation"); State v. Bauer, 180 Wn.2d 929, 936 n.5, 329 P.3d 67 (2014). To determine whether Frahm's acts proximately caused Irvine's death, we must determine whether Frahm's acts were both the legal cause and the actual cause of the death.

         Actual cause, or cause in fact, "refers to the 'but for' consequences of an act-the physical connection between an act and an injury." Hartley, 103 Wn.2d at 778. Legal cause presents a more nuanced inquiry:

Legal causation . . . rests on policy considerations as to how far the consequences of [a] defendant's acts should extend. It involves a determination of whether liability should attach as a matter of law given the existence of cause in fact. . . . [D]etermination of legal liability will be dependent on ...

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