Criminal charges are not likely to be filed against the husband of driver Diane Schuler for the deadly crash she caused last month. On July 26, Schuler slammed her minivan head-on into a sport utility vehicle (SUV) after driving the wrong way down a New York highway for almost 2 miles. Schuler, her daughter and three nieces died in the wreck. Three men riding in the SUV were also killed.
Authorities labeled the incident a homicide after a toxicology report showed that Diane Schuler was extremely drunk and high on marijuana at the time of the crash. Schuler's blood alcohol content was .19%, over twice the legal limit for intoxication in New York. She also had high levels of the marijuana ingredient THC in her system, indicating that she'd smoked pot shortly before the crash.
The victims' families want someone to be held accountable for the tragedy. The person directly responsible, Diane Schuler, died at the scene. Should her husband, Daniel Schuler, have to pay for what she did?
Accomplice to Vehicular Homicide
In other cases, criminal charges have been brought against family members and friends who allowed a drunk driver to get behind the wheel. For example, the Iowa Supreme Court found that a passenger was properly charged as an accomplice to drunk driving when he allowed his intoxicated companion to drive. The Iowa Supreme Court has also held that someone who helps another become intoxicated can be convicted for aiding and abetting drunk driving.
Daniel Schuler was with his wife at the upstate campground before she headed home with the kids on her fateful journey. For Daniel to be charged as an accomplice to vehicular homicide or manslaughter, prosecutors would have to show that he knew or should have known Diane was intoxicated before he let her hit the road.
To the contrary, Daniel claims that his wife was stone cold sober when she left the campground on July 26. The campground owner agrees that there was no indication that Diane had been drinking when she left that morning around 9:30 a.m. A McDonald's security video tape shows Diane behaving normally when she stopped at the fast-food restaurant about an hour later. This evidence makes the possibility of criminal charges against Daniel Schuler unlikely.
Daniel has gone even further to deny that his wife had any sort of problem with drinking or drugs. He disputes the toxicology report and theorizes that Diane's erratic driving was due to some sort of stroke or medical condition.
Justice through a Civil Lawsuit
Although a criminal action seems unlikely, the victims' families will undoubtedly seek retribution through a civil lawsuit against Diane Schuler's estate and the automobile insurers that covered her.
Under New York's wrongful death laws, the victims' family members could sue to recover for:
- Any pain and suffering they endured due to the victim's death
- Any medical or funeral expenses they paid
- Any loss of income that the victim would have provided them if the victim had lived
- Punitive damages, a recovery intended to punish the drunk driver's gross misconduct and deter others from similar conduct
Under New York's survival statutes, a representative for: the victim could sue for:
- Any pain and suffering that the victim endured before death
- Any medical or funeral expenses paid by the victim's estate
A lawsuit for negligent entrustment provides another possibility of recovery for the victims' families. Under this claim, the owner of a vehicle can be held responsible for an accident if he allowed a drunk or impaired person to drive it.
Diane Schuler was driving the minivan owned by her brother, Warren Hance, when she crashed into the SUV. Hance could be held financially responsible for the accident if he knew, or should have known, that his sister had drug or alcohol problems, or a medical condition, that made her a dangerous driver.
Schuler's car wreck was a terrible tragedy that took the lives of eight people. It's understandable that outraged families want someone to be held accountable. Whether anyone other than Diane Schuler will be held responsible is not yet clear.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Am I legally responsible for making sure that my friends drive home safely after sharing a few drinks with them?
- Which family members can sue for wrongful death? How much time do they have to file the lawsuit?
- What difference does it make if I sue under the wrongful death laws or under the survival statutes?