September 2012 Archives

Marine pleads not guilty to manslaughter charges in crash that killed his sister, her boyfriend

September 25, 2012

1103691_alley.jpgA U.S. Marine has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in connection with a drunk driving crash that killed his sister and her boyfriend. The Morning Sentinel reports that 23 year-old Travis Lawler was indicted this week on two counts of manslaughter and two counts of aggravated operating under the influence. A crash investigation conducted by the Maine State Police determined that excessive speed and alcohol use directly contributed to the crash.

Lawler was reportedly on leave from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the accident occurred in North Belgrade, Maine. Police say he was behind the wheel of a 2011 Toyota Carolla that ran off the road while negotiating a curve and struck a tree. The front seat passenger, 20 year-old Kristin Lawler, was pronounced dead at the scene. Her boyfriend, 25 year-old Jackson Bolduc, was riding in the backseat. He was taken to a Waterville hospital by helicopter, but he died from his injuries the next day. A fourth occupant, 20 year-old Dylan Desroches, was also airlifted from the scene with critical injuries, but ultimately survived the crash.

According to authorities, Travis Lawler was not in the car when emergency responders arrived, and police began organizing a search party to locate him. He was later found about a half-mile away on the shore of Great Pond, after a resident called police to report a man on his property. At that time, Lawler was taken by ambulance for treatment of minor cuts and scrapes.

After the crash, Lawler told the Kennebec Journal that he had no memory of leaving the accident scene. He said he couldn't remember why he walked away, or where the group had been prior to the accident. He also said he was in the water when police approached him. His uncle, David Leeman, told the Journal that the four occupants of the Carolla had been at the beach earlier in the evening. Leeman said Lawler was confused following the accident and believed his sister was lost, so he walked back towards the water to find her. "He was in a state of shock," Leeman said. "He thought he was searching for her and didn't know where she was."

Following the hearing on Tuesday, Lawler posted $1,000 cash bail. Under the conditions of his release, he is not allowed to drive or to use (or possess) alcohol. He is also prohibited from contacting Desroches, the other survivor of the accident. If convicted, Lawler could face a lengthy prison sentence: each of the manslaughter charges carry a maximum penalty of 30 years behind bars.

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"LOL" Facebook post about drunk driving crash lands KY teen behind bars

September 16, 2012

865021_type.jpgA Kentucky teen was sentenced to 48 hours in jail after causing a crash while driving drunk and posting an "LOL" comment about the accident on Facebook. A judge in Woodford County imposed the sentence on 18 year-old Paula Asher, who is still facing charges of leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance.

Local law enforcement officials say Asher was drunk when she T-boned another vehicle in July and then drove away. When she was arrested later the same night, her blood alcohol content was over the legal limit and police discovered two Xanax pills in her vehicle. Asher reportedly told the arresting officers that she didn't realize she had hit anything.

After she was formally charged, Asher posted the following sentence on Facebook: "My dumb (expletive) got a DUI and hit a car LOL." Of course, "LOL" is a commonly used internet acronym meaning "laugh out loud." According to LEX18 News, Asher's post was seen by parents of the teenagers who were in the car Asher struck. They reported Asher's comment to Woodford District Judge Mary Jane Phelps, who ordered Asher to delete her Facebook account immediately.

However, Asher didn't follow that order. When Judge Phelps learned that the Facebook account was still active, she charged Asher with contempt of court and ordered her to spend two days behind bars. Officials at Woodford County Circuit Court say that deactivating the Facebook account was a condition of Asher's release.

Asher says she didn't intend to be flippant about the accident, and that she has apologized to the victims and to Judge Phelps. "I didn't think LOL would put me in jail," she said. Asher appeared in court on September 10 told the judge the account had been disabled. She is scheduled to appear again on September 24.

Because of social media's growing role in daily life, it can impact car accident investigations and legal proceedings in numerous ways. After all, websites like Facebook and Twitter can provide specific, time-stamped details about user's activities. People write about what they're doing, where they're going, and how they're feeling - and some do so multiple times each day.

As a result, social media can be a useful tool for law enforcement officials as they conduct investigations. In fatal crashes (especially where distracted or impaired driving is suspected), social media accounts can help police determine what a user was doing in the hours leading up to (and following) the accident. This week, police officers in Minnesota used Facebook photos and tweets to identify, locate, and arrest a suspected thief who escaped during a high speed chase. And Virginia police recently used tweets sent by two college students to help establish the sequence of events leading up to a fatal train crash.

However, using social media can also have unwanted consequences, particularly if you're a car accident victim who's involved in a personal injury lawsuit. It's now common for defense attorneys and insurance companies to request access to social media accounts - and it's fairly easy to take a photograph or a post out of context and use it as evidence undermining an injury claim. For example, if an injury victim posts "I feel great!", an insurer could characterize the post as evidence that the victim's injuries aren't as serious he or she claims.

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Man, pregnant wife & two children injured in Illinois car/train collision

September 9, 2012

10544_chicago_metra_speed.jpgA 20 year-old Illinois man is facing charges in connection with a collision between a car and a Metra train on Saturday night. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Pedro Bustamante has been cited for driving without a valid license, driving too fast for conditions, and operating an uninsured vehicle that caused bodily harm. Bustamante, his pregnant wife and their two young children were all injured in the collision.

The accident happened in Elgin, a Chicago suburb. Authorities say Bustamante was traveling south on Raymond Street when he approached a sharp curve in the road, where the street bends before reaching a railroad crossing. Instead of following the curve, Bustamante's Lincoln Continental ran off the road, hit a guardrail protecting the crossing's control box, and continued onto the tracks. It was then struck by the locomotive of an oncoming Metra train.

Bustamante's 14 month-old daughter was airlifted to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital with serious injuries, but her condition has since stabilized and she is expected to recover. The vehicle's other occupants - Bustamante; his wife, 19 year-old Brenda Ceja; and their 5 year-old son - were taken by ambulance to Provena Saint Joseph Hospital in Elgin. Bustamante and his son were treated and released, but Ceja, who is pregnant, remains hospitalized.

No one on board the train was injured. The train that struck the vehicle was delayed for about 90 minutes after the crash: it was damaged, but still operational. In contrast, Bustamante's Continental was completely destroyed. According to the Sun-Times, passengers on the train reported seeing "a dark blue 1997 Lincoln Continental with its entire engine-area torn off and the entire windshield spider-webbed with fracture marks; the car's engine, lying in the street about 20 feet away; and the car's transmission, lying in the street about 10 feet away from the engine."

Police suspect that weather conditions may have played a role in the crash, as it was dark and raining when the accident occurred. Alcohol is also believed to be a contributing factor, though Bustamante was not charged with driving while intoxicated. All of the charges against him are traffic-related misdemeanors.

The accident prompted two other minor incidents on Raymond Street. Immediately after the crash, another vehicle struck the wrecked Continental, but that driver was not injured and his vehicle only sustained minor damage. Then, after the family had been transported from the scene, a second vehicle collided with the wreckage, but no one in that vehicle was hurt.

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Eight "danger zones" create increased crash risks for teen drivers, pediatrician says

September 1, 2012

78225_driving.jpgEach year, car accidents account for one out of every three teen fatalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that novice drivers (from age 16 to 19) are four times more likely to crash than older drivers. In a recent blog, pediatrician Dr. Rima Himelstein examined the key factors that contribute to teen crashes, or what she termed the "eight danger zones of teen driving."

1. Driver inexperience

Simple lack of experience is a contributing factor in numerous accidents involving teen drivers. Because they've spent less time behind the wheel, teens are less prepared to deal with the numerous unexpected situations that can present themselves on the road. Since crash risks are especially high during a teen's first year of driving, safety advocates recommend that teen drivers receive extensive supervised practice during that time. Teens need to gain experience driving at different times of day, in different kinds of weather, on different kinds of roads.

2. Driving with teen passengers

Research has shown that passengers can be an particularly dangerous distraction for teen drivers, especially when those passengers are also teens. A study conducted by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the risk of a fatal crash increases by 44% when a 16 or 17 year-old has just one teen passenger. With two teen passengers, the risk is doubled; with three or more, the risk is quadrupled. Missouri's graduated driver license (GDL) law places restrictions on the amount of passengers a teen driver can carry, but safety advocates urge parents to establish rules that reinforce those restrictions.

3. Driving after dark

Nighttime driving comes with its own set of challenges. In 2009, 61% of teen traffic fatalities occurred between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Furthermore, a 2010 study from the Texas Transportation Institute found that "it is the nighttime risk that ranks at the top of the list for the youngest motorists on the road, primarily due to a combination of the visibility challenges caused by dark conditions, slower response time brought about by fatigue, and a lack of experience driving under such conditions." Here again, GDL laws restrict nighttime driving in novice drivers, but parents will want to monitor their teens and ensure they receive ample supervised practice.

4. Driving without seatbelts

While teen seatbelt use has increased significantly in recent years, teens are still much less likely to buckle up than older drivers are. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "in 2009 the majority (56%) of young people 16 to 20 years old involved in fatal crashes were unbuckled."

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