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Massachusetts SJC to decide whether failure to secure a child properly into a car seat can constitute involuntary manslaughter

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether the failure to secure a child properly in a car seat can result in an involuntary manslaughter conviction.  The case is Commonwealth v. Hardy, where the defendant Hardy was convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter.  On appeal, Hardy argues that her failure to secure her child in a booster seat is a legally insufficient basis for her conviction as to manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a child.  A manslaughter conviction requires the Commonwealth to prove, “the defendant unintentionally caused another’s death during the commission of wanton or reckless conduct,” and said conduct, “created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to the victim.”

Similarly, a conviction for reckless endangerment of a child requires the Commonwealth to show the defendant recklessly engaged in conduct that caused substantial risk of serious bodily injury to a child… or wantonly or recklessly failed to take reasonable steps to alleviate such risk when there was a duty to act.  G.L. c. 265, §13L.

Was Hardy’s conduct, failing to secure Dylan in a booster seat, wanton or reckless?  Was Hardy aware that her failure to use the booster seat created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would befall Dylan?  Courts have defined recklessness as conduct involving a grave risk of harm to another that a person undertakes with indifference to or disregard of the consequences.  Commonwealth v. Welansky, 316 Mass. 383, 399 (1944).  Hardy submits her act of merely using the seatbelt and not the booster did not rise to the requisite level of wanton or reckless conduct.  She further alleges that the Commonwealth provided no evidence as to whether Dylan may have survived the crash if a booster seat had been utilized.  In her brief, Hardy argues that at most, the Commonwealth is alleging her conduct was merely negligent and as a matter of law, a legally insufficient basis for the conviction of manslaughter.  She further asserts that an individual who fails to secure a child in a vehicle at all might engage in wanton or reckless conduct, but she took steps to mitigate, the inherent risk associated with any passenger in a vehicle by making sure Dylan was at least wearing a seatbelt.

Background of the Hardy case

On June 4, 2014 Hardy was involved in a fatal car accident while driving her son Landon, her nephew Dylan, and Dylan’s half-brother Jayce.  While on Route 20 in Brimfield, Massachusetts Hardy didn’t see a landscaping truck stop in her lane.  She veered to her right, smashed into the guard rail, ricocheted back across all lanes and into oncoming traffic where she side-swiped an SUV and eventually crashed head-on into another vehicle.  Jayce, who was fourteen months old, was pronounced dead on scene.  Dylan, a four year old, was transported by helicopter to UMass Hospital, but succumbed to his injuries.  The medical examiner determined that blunt force trauma of the head and neck was the cause of death for both boys.  Hardy and her son Landon, while seriously injured, survived.  Further, the driver of vehicle that was hit head-on by Hardy was also severely injured, as well her sixteen month old daughter Jayden. Ultimately both victims survived.

Criminal Charges following the accident

A grand jury indicted Hardy on June 1, 2015 with two counts of manslaughter, two counts of negligent motor vehicle homicide, one count of assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and three counts of reckless endangerment of a child.  Hardy’s alleged failure to properly secure the two children in her care in appropriate car seats was the catalyst giving rise to the charges.  According to Massachusetts law, and based on the age and weight of the children involved, Dylan should have been belted in a booster seat and Jayce should have been placed in a rear facing car seat.  It was determined that Dylan was merely belted in the middle seat with a normal lap belt, while Jayce was placed in a forward facing car seat that, according to investigators, was loosely secured.

Following trial, on May 11, 2017 the jury returned its verdict and found Hardy guilty of manslaughter against Dylan, two counts of negligent motor vehicle homicide against Dylan and Jayce, and reckless endangerment of a child, Dylan.  Hardy was sentenced to two and a half years in the House of Corrections, with one and a half years suspended for three years, and three years to be served on probation.

The Massachusetts SJC should find that while the defendant was negligent in failing to properly strap the children in, that her conduct was not wanton and reckless to trigger criminal liability under the involuntary manslaughter statute for what is a tragic accident.  

To listen to the oral argument in the Hardy case you can visit the Suffolk University School of Law website.

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