Top court upholds erasing Harford conviction in child's death

Operating a truck doesn't include cleanup of spilled gravel

August 31, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

"Operating a vehicle" refers only to what a motorist does behind the wheel, Maryland's highest court ruled Tuesday, as it upheld an appeals court decision that overturned the vehicular manslaughter conviction of a truck driver whose accidental gravel spill on a Harford County road caused a fatal crash in 2005.

Kevin G. DiGennaro of Dundalk was convicted of vehicular manslaughter after a car driven by Heather Sandmeier skidded on the gravel into oncoming traffic. Sandmeier's son Devon, 7, was killed in the crash.

The Maryland Court of Appeals said the boy's "death was not caused by [the truck driver's] negligent operation of a vehicle, but rather by [his] failure to take appropriate operational remedial action as a result of what occurred while he had been operating a vehicle."

The vehicular manslaughter law does not define what it means to operate a vehicle, and such cases generally center on whether the person behind the wheel of a moving vehicle was so grossly negligent that he caused another person's death.

The definition became crucial in this case. The prosecution contended that because DiGennaro was legally required to deal with the spilled gravel, that was part of operating his vehicle — even though he couldn't have done that while driving.

In its ruling, the court suggested a different route to a possible conviction for another type of manslaughter.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly called the court's ruling "disheartening." He said the opinion does not settle the law in his mind because many actions go into operating a vehicle, and not all of them take place while someone is behind the wheel. For example, a trailer hitch or roof rack should be secure before a vehicle is moving, he said. If they are not, and a driver speeds, the hardware could become dislodged and kill someone. Each of those acts would be negligent, he said, and if combined, might be considered grossly negligent.

Cassilly said the law must be clarified and that he plans to discuss the court's opinion with the state attorney general's office.

The Court of Appeals said DiGennaro could have been charged with common-law involuntary manslaughter. To gain a conviction, prosecutors would have had to prove that the trucker was legally required to deal with the spill to protect others on the road but did not do so and was indifferent to the danger he left behind, the judges said.

During the trial in 2007, Cassilly argued that operating the truck meant that DiGennaro, who said he accidentally hit the wrong lever and spilled 1.5 tons of gravel on northbound Route 136, should have done everything a truck driver is legally required to do, and that included warning motorists or immediately cleaning up the hazard.

The defense contended that was beyond the law's definition of operating a vehicle.

The Court of Special Appeals overturned the vehicular manslaughter conviction in 2008, agreeing with DiGennaro's attorney. The Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

DiGennaro also was convicted of failure to remove debris from the roadway, a verdict that was not overturned.

Amy E. Brennan, the assistant public defender who represented DiGennaro, declined to comment.

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