The Los Angeles DUI Law Blog

Ashley Bryan Trial: Jury Can't Say, 'Manslaughter or Misfortune?'

Ashley Bryan, 26, was driving drunk. No one, including her attorneys, disputes that fact. On April 2, 2011, her Honda Civic collided with a disabled Chevy Camaro, leading to the death of the Camaro's passenger, 18-year-old Cameron Cook. Two and a half hours after the accident, Bryan's blood alcohol content was 0.17 - more than twice the legal limit.

The jury answered the easy questions. They found her guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and of driving with a BAC of 0.08 or more. Then again, her attorney conceded that she was driving drunk during the trial. The question that the jury couldn't answer, and which led to mistrial, was whether her conduct amounted to vehicular manslaughter, reports the Orange County Register.

The final tally, before the mistrial was declared, was 11-1 in favor of conviction.

She drove drunk, collided with a parked car, and someone died. What’s the confusion?

The Chevy Camaro was involved in a prior accident and came to a rest on the shoulder of northbound 57 freeway at Katella Avenue. The front end of the vehicle was poking into the traffic lane. Cook, the passenger who died in the accident, was standing outside the vehicle when it was hit. The collision pushed the vehicle into him, which subsequently knocked him over a barrier, where he fell 50 to 60 feet to his death, reports The Register.

Bryan’s attorney calls it a chain reaction accident. The prosecutor calls it reckless and manslaughter.

The law calls it … well … there’s the confusion.

The statute requires two things: a DUI and an additional negligent act that proximately caused the death. What was her additional negligent act? From the news stories, we cannot discern one. There is no report that she was speeding or texting.

There’s also a question of proximate causation. This is the “freak accident” defense. In order to proximately cause an outcome, that outcome must be something that is reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the negligent act. Was it foreseeable that she would collide with a disabled car that was sticking into the traffic lane, hitting that car and pushing it into a passenger who was standing outside the car, and knocking that passenger over a wall and down an embankment?

This is why her attorney keeps referring to the accident as a “chain reaction.” He was arguing to the jury that there was no proximate cause or foreseeability.

Bryan drove drunk. Someone died in the ensuing accident. While that is enough to prove drunk driving, it may not be enough to prove vehicular manslaughter under California’s version of the law.

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