Cedric Stephens | Legal impacts of a fatal auto accident
Much has been said and written about a car-motorcycle accident that occurred on the Old Harbour Main Road on March 16, 2014, in which a pillion rider was killed.
The incident led to conviction of the car driver, the imposition of a $2 million fine, or 12 months of imprisonment, and the suspension of his licence.
The February-March 2017 court trial and conviction were the topics of conversation on social media and among persons on the streets. Presumably, this was because of the judge's refusal to grant bail.
The incident also led to an editorial in the Jamaica Observer after the sentence was handed down. 'Is sending manslaughter convicts to prison the best remedy?' the newspaper asked.
But, best remedy for whom the deceased's relatives, the State, the car driver or society at large? The comments made no distinction between vehicular and other kinds of manslaughter.
The newspaper also displayed surprising ignorance about the island's laws. It appeared unaware of The Motor Vehicles Insurance (Third-Party Risks) Act, which was enacted over 75 years ago and which made motor vehicle insurance compulsory. This led to the development of a multibillion-dollar compensation system that includes motor vehicle insurers and which offers protection to the accident victims and/or their legal personal representatives.
The car driver and I know each other. He is a good man. Three years ago, he told me that the pain, emotional upset and distress that he suffered after the accident were far greater than anything he experienced when his father died.
Gentleman that he is, I am very sure that in spite of the life-changing events that occurred to him since 2014, he wouldn't mind if I linked some of his experiences with topics that are the subject of this column from time to time. Real-life events have far greater impact than naked prose.
Accidents can take place in a flash. They happen to everyone. A poor decision to overtake, to make or receive a cellphone or to send a text message can produce unpleasant results and have long effects when one sits behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
This is one of the reasons why this column has sought to bring to public attention the condition known as inattention blindness in the context of the ongoing debate about the new Road Traffic Act.
Some lawmakers were advocating allowing the use of hands-free cell phones while driving in the face of scientific evidence which showed that the practice of talking and not holding the device was just as risky as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Preventing unnecessary loss of lives should be uppermost in the minds of lawmakers as they conclude the debate on the new law.
Insurance companies are in the business of managing many of the risks associated with the owning and driving of motor vehicles. They exist to provide help to their customers in the words of the contracts, their job is to indemnify policyholders.
This function should be carried out with empathy and understanding. Unfortunately, when this particular customer first interacted with his motor insurers in 2014, it only increased the intensity of the post-traumatic stress disorder that he continues to suffer after the collision.
Drivers who are charged with vehicular manslaughter, irrespective of whether they are convicted, can spend time in jail. Many persons, based on how they drive, do not appear to behave as though this is possible. Fewer of them know if their comprehensive policies will pay the legal charges for defending them against a charge of manslaughter and for how much.
In the United Kingdom, the actions of companies can lead to criminal charges of corporate manslaughter in cases where people are killed. Insurers there sell coverage to provide legal defences against such charges.
Private individuals in Jamaica should ensure that they buy adequate insurance protection against manslaughter charges much in the same way that corporate entities in the UK do.
The defendant had to retain the services of two attorneys to defend him in the Old Harbour Road accident. They did not come cheap. My guess is that the total costs of retaining them probably topped the $2 million fine that the court imposed which his insurers will not pay.
I expect that the driver's manslaughter policy limit will be substantially below that amount. Motorists should, therefore, try to buy more than the standard policy limit for manslaughter defence costs when they arrange motor insurance.
- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: email@example.com