The Case of the Fatal Runaway Tire
This week, we head over to Hopewell, a small town in Ontario County, New York. The town is home to the New York State Pageant of Steam, where you can see Brad Vosburg plowing with a 65 HP Case Steam Tractor with the engine plowing an 8 Bottom Rumley Plow.
One day, Lee Hutt, a 57-year-old Hopewell Highway Department employee, was on his way to get parts to repair the highway trucks. As Lee was driving his pick-up through Farmington, 18 miles away, he was killed in an accident. A tire had fallen off a pick-up coming from the opposite direction. A larger truck tried to avoid the oncoming tire and that larger truck crushed Lee’s vehicle. Lee was pronounced dead at the scene.
This is the trial of the owner of the fatal runaway tire. His name is John Pinnock.
Good morning, members of the jury. The testimony will show that the defendant, Mr. John Pinnock, was driving his beat-up 2001 Dodge pickup truck over in Farmington, when the wheel came of his truck and became lodged in the wheel well of a grain truck. The grain truck collided with Lee and killed him. When you have heard all the testimony and seen all the proof, you will find that John new that his truck was in severe disrepair and had no business being on the road. When you have heard all the testimony and seen all the proof, you will have no choice but to find John GUILTY of criminally negligent HOMICIDE .
Would the Defense like to give an opening statement?
Thank you, Your Honor; and, may it please the Court. Members of the jury: good morning. The evidence in this case will show only one thing: that this was a tragic and freak accident that does not give rise to criminal liability. Mr. Pinnock…John, asks of you only one thing: Listen carefully to the testimony. If you listen carefully, you will be able to determine that John is NOT GUILTY of any crime whatsoever. Listen and decide… I am confident you will get this right. Thank you.
Testimony of Grain Truck Driver
Q: Sir, you were involved in an accident that occurred on Route 96 at Payne Road in Farmington, at 12:25 p.m.?
A: Yes, sir, that is correct, just east of Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack.
Q: And what kind of vehicle were you operating?
A: I was delivering grain in a straight truck…straight body; not a trailer.
Q: Was the truck loaded?
A: Yes, sir: She was freighted with 6 tons of grain.
Q: Now, can you tell us about the configuration of Route 26?
A: Yes, it has lanes for traffic going in opposing directions: Eastbound and Westbound.
Q: And you were heading Eastbound?
A: That is correct.
Q: What was the weather like?
A: Clear, hot August afternoon. Roadway was dry.
Q: Traffic flow? How was that?
A: The volume was normal for that time of the day. It was busy.
Q: How did the accident happen?
A: As I was driving, I saw a runaway tire come over into the eastbound lane of traffic…I mean, I saw the tire coming into my lane.
Q: What did you do?
A: I swerved and attempted to stop but I crossed into the westbound lane. The truck then hit Lee's vehicle – a pick-up -- in the westbound lane and tipped over on top of it. My truck was sliding on its side.
Q: What happened after that?
A: I was extracted from my truck by EMTs and was taken over to the hospital.
Q: How old were you at the time of the accident?
A: 71 years young.
Q: Thank you, sir. No further questions.
Testimony of John Pinnock (The Defendant)
Q: What kind of vehicle were you driving at the time of the accident?
A: 2001 Dodge pickup truck.
Q: How long did you have it?
A: Several weeks before the accident.
Q: Your truck had an inspection sticker?
A: Yeah. When I bought it, there was a valid NYS inspection sticker on it.
Q: But DMV records show that its last valid inspection was three years before the accident, right?
A: I didn’t know that.
Q: And that the sticker was a forgery?
A: I didn’t know anything about that.
Q: Isn’t it also true that three days before the accident, the pickup truck was making loud grinding noises?
A: Yes. I brought it to a mechanic. Well, someone who knows about cars and trucks.
Q: And that person told you that the noise was likely being caused by a wheel or the brakes.
A: That’s right. But I didn’t think the wheel was going to fall off – I wouldn’t have driven it!
Testimony of Expert Mechanic
Q: You inspected Lee’s pick-up?
A: Yes. After the accident, I inspected the driver's side wheel and truck and established some significant problems with the wheel that would have been noticeable.
Cross-Examination by the Defense:
Q: Isn’t it true that the severity of the problems could not have been known to John -- the defendant in this case -- unless the wheel was removed from the truck?
A: That is fair. Yes.
We the Jury, find the Defendant, John Pinnock…GUILTY of criminally negligent homicide.
Lee worked for the Hopewell highway department for 27 years. Hopewell is a very small community. Everyone knew Lee and had a lot of respect for his family. It's a loss for the town and an even greater loss for his family. Whenever you had something that needed to be done, Lee was there to help out. Even if it meant pushing cars in the rain. Two weeks ago, we helped out with the Red Cross run and he was helping the parking people and as luck would have it, with all the rain, many cars were stuck and he was there 'til the very end making sure all the cars got out. Lee has touched the lives of many people. He will be missed.
MR. Pinnock, I am imposing the maximum sentence permitted by law: 1 1/3 to 4 years behind bars for criminally negligent homicide (class E felony).
John’s lawyers appealed. They argued that John’s operation of the pickup truck in a state of disrepair cannot be a basis of criminal liability.
The Appeals Court Ruling:
The carelessness required for criminal negligence must be so serious that it would be apparent to anyone who shares the community's general sense of right and wrong. Criminal negligence requires a defendant to have engaged in some blameworthy conduct creating or contributing to a substantial risk of an injury or death – not seeing the risk, is not enough.
Conviction & Sentence Reversed:
John was saved by the appeals court and is now a free man. Can John be held responsible for the wrongful death of Lee? The answer is this: John can be sued by Lee’s estate for civil negligence. But that is a topic for another edition of Cup of Joe.
Click HERE to read the full case.