Commonwealth v. Wisneski, No. 5 WAP 2010 (September 29, 2011)
Wisneski ran over a fallen bicyclist with his vehicle. Although he realized after looking at his rear view mirror that he had hit a body, and not a speed bump as he originally thought, Wisneski did not stop or notify police. The bicyclist had been struck by more than one vehicle and died.
Wisneski was charged with failure to stop at an accident, failure to comply with a duty to give information and render aid, and failure to immediately notify the police.
He filed a habeas corpus petition seeking dismissal of the charges asserting that the Commonwealth cannot prove that the bicyclist was alive when he struck him. Concluding that the statutes required the victim be alive at the time of the accident, the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas granted Wisneski’s petition, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed. The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Because statutory interpretation is a question of law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court exercised a de novo standard of review.
Section 3742 of Pennsylvania’s Vehicle Code addresses accidents involving death or personal injury:
(a) General rule.–The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury or death of any person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall then forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of the accident until he has fulfilled the requirements of section 3744 (relating to duty to give information and render aid). Every stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.
Noting that the statute does not define “accident,” the Court concluded that its meaning is broad, and duration cannot be determined. The Court also pointed out that involvement does not require that a person cause the accident.
The Court found that the plain meaning of the word “injury” is also broad. The Court stated that the legislature intended for a person to stop if he damaged someone’s property, such as a bicycle. Therefore, the duty to stop certainly exists if a person damaged someone’s body, whether alive or dead.
Reversing the Superior Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that “injury” encompasses damage to a dead body, so all the obligations under the statutes apply even when the victim is deceased.