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An Inspection Catastrophe

August 11, 2014

A recently decided Pennsylvania Superior Court Decision affirmed a Common Pleas Court conviction of a defendant, an automobile mechanic, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person arising from an accident in which the brakes of a van he had inspected went out within hours of having worked on them. 

The factual background of the case involved a driver who worked for a van service company ("Company") that provided transportation for students to and from school.  The students happened to be special needs children.  The Company employed the driver to pick up the children at their residences in the morning, drop them at the school and return to the school in the afternoon to take them home.  On the day in question, the driver did not have her usual van for the trip.  Her employer, the Company, provided a different van but she felt something was wrong with it.  She felt the van shook and shimmered when the brakes were applied.  After dropping the children off at their school including, incidentally, an aide for one of them, the driver returned to her Company's garage complaining there was something strange about the van.  She was told a mechanic would look at it.  The Company's mechanic checked the van.  When the driver returned to pick up the van, she was told the problems were fixed.  The driver then drove to pick up the children and the aide.  A few blocks from the school, the driver picked up speed driving down a hill and put her foot on the brake which went straight to the floor.  Speed increased.  She tried to stop or slow down the van onto a grass plot but smashed into a tree.  The aide was killed.

A homicide investigation ensued including checking the work order completed by the mechanic.  He said he pulled all four tires, the brakes were fine and he made appropriate adjustments.  However, the Government Inspectors ascertained the rear brakes were not adjusted, all four wheels had not been pulled and the rear drums weren't checked.  The Inspectors concluded had the rear drums been checked, obvious defects would have been noticed and the left rear brake would be deemed to have been defective.  The Government Inspectors testified the van should not have been allowed to leave the garage with brake system defects. 

The Government Inspectors interviewed the mechanic who continued to contend he completed all required adjustments, but he was confronted with photographs which evidenced discrepancies.

The mechanic was charged with involuntary manslaughter for causing the death as a direct result of his failure to make appropriate repairs.  Also he was charged with reckless endangerment.  A jury convicted him of both charges resulting in a sentence of 2 ½ to 5 years incarceration followed by a 5 year probationary term. 

The Superior Court, affirmed, and held there was sufficient evidence to support the mechanic acted in a reckless and grossly negligent manner with regard to his repair of the van, requirements for an involuntary manslaughter conviction.  Particularly the Court commented the driver's complaint about the van's brakes should have caused the mechanic to be extra sensitive to a possible problem with the van's braking system.  The Court noted the mechanic knew the van would be used to transport passengers especially children, an added concern that should have alerted the mechanic to be extra careful.  The Court emphasized a reasonable person would have taken the time to investigate a complaint about the brakes, including checking the rear brake drums.  The representation by the mechanic the van was safe to drive was, concluded the Court, a misrepresentation. 

The obvious lesson of the case is any inspection must be complete, repairs made or suggested to be made, accurately documented and, when confronted by a failure contention, to be candid and honest.

Though not involved in the case, which was a criminal matter, undoubtedly there will be a civil damage action instituted against not only the mechanic but the Company by the estate of the decedent, the children and possibly the driver, which will become costly and time consuming.

This article was written by Norman P. Zarwin, Esquire and published in the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Pennsylvania and Delaware magazine. 


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