Com. v. Matroni

Citation923 A.2d 444
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court
Decision Date19 April 2007
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Louis T. MATRONI, Jr., Appellant.

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

Andrea E. Mertz, Public Defender, Reading, for appellant.

Douglas J. Waltman, Asst. Dist. Atty., Reading, for Com., appellee.

BEFORE: STEVENS, BOWES, and McCAFFERY, JJ.

OPINION BY STEVENS, J.:

¶ 1 Appellant, Louis T. Matroni, Jr., appeals from an April 11, 2005 judgment of sentence entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County. We affirm.

¶ 2 This case stems from a March 5, 2004 auto accident which caused the death of Susan Story. As a result of the accident, Matroni was charged with homicide by vehicle under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732, a felony in the third degree, as well as the summary offenses of overtaking a vehicle on the right, 75 Pa.C.S.A § 3304, reckless driving, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3736, following too closely, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3310, driving on roadways laned for traffic, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3309, and driving at a safe speed, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3361. Following a March, 2005 jury trial, Matroni was found guilty of all charges. He was subsequently sentenced to eight to 23 months' imprisonment on the homicide by vehicle conviction. After a motion to modify his sentence was denied, Matroni filed this timely appeal on May 2, 2005.1 He raises the following issues for our review:

A. Whether the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict of the jury finding the defendant guilty of homicide by vehicle when the Commonwealth failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted recklessly or with gross negligence?
B. Whether the lower court erred when it improperly instructed the jury that in order to invoke the sudden emergency doctrine that the defendant was required to prove that there was a sudden emergency by a preponderance of the evidence?
C. Whether the imposition of a sentence of not less than 8 nor more than 23 months was a manifest abuse of discretion when the defendant had no prior criminal record, a stable family life, a good work history and the court improperly speculated that the defendant lacked remorse based on his observations of the defendant's demeanor during trial?

Appellant's brief at 5.

¶ 3 We turn first to Matroni's argument that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction for violation of Section 3732 of the Vehicle Code. Pursuant to that section:

Any person who recklessly or with gross negligence causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any law of this Commonwealth or municipal ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic except section 3802 (relating to driving under influence of alcohol or controlled substance) is guilty of homicide by vehicle, a felony of the third degree, when the violation is the cause of death.

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732(a). Thus to sustain a conviction under Section 3732(a), the Commonwealth was required to prove that Matroni caused the death of Susan Story by acting recklessly or with gross negligence, while violating a law or municipal ordinance under the conditions set forth in the statute. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732(a).

¶ 4 Here, Matroni does not dispute that his actions caused Susan Story's death. Nor does he dispute that he violated the law by committing the five summary offenses for which he was charged. Instead, Matroni limits his argument on appeal to an assertion that the Commonwealth failed to prove that he acted with the required recklessness or gross negligence. Appellant's brief at 14.

¶ 5 To determine whether the Commonwealth met its burden of proof in this regard, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, as verdict winner. Commonwealth v. Kinney, 863 A.2d 581, 584 (Pa.Super.2004).

As an appellate court, we do not assess credibility nor do we assign weight to any of the testimony of record. Instead, we review the totality of evidence offered at trial to determine if it lends adequate support to the verdict. See Commonwealth v. Cassidy, 447 Pa.Super. 192, 668 A.2d 1143, 1144 (Pa.Super.1995) (noting that this court "may not weigh the evidence and substitute its judgment for the fact-finder").

Kinney, 863 A.2d at 584. The evidence introduced during Matroni's trial, when viewed in such a light, revealed the following:

¶ 6 In the pre-dawn hours of March 5, 2004, Matroni was traveling in the left southbound lane of the Fruitville Pike, in Lancaster County. N.T. 3/4/05 at 451. Luis Ortiz was stopped at a red light in the right southbound lane when he first observed Matroni's car as it stopped beside him. N.T. 3/2/05 at 136. When the light turned green, Ortiz pulled out. Id. at 137. He did not note the actions of Matroni's car, but as Ortiz continued along the Fruitville Pike at approximately 40 miles per hour, he observed a tractor trailer traveling in the left southbound lane five to seven car lengths ahead of him. Id. at 138, 140. The tractor trailer, a flat-bed carrying a piece of machinery, had its lights on. Id. at 139-140.

¶ 7 As Ortiz continued to travel in the right southbound lane, a pick-up truck passed him in the left southbound lane, tailgated by Matroni's car. Id. at 145. Ortiz estimated that Matroni was traveling around 60 miles per hour, and was only a foot away from the pick-up truck in front of him. Id. at 145-146. At this point, all three vehicles were approaching the tractor trailer traveling in the left southbound lane. Id. at 146. After the pick-up truck and Matroni passed Ortiz, they cut in front of his vehicle into the right southbound lane. Id. at 147. Once in the right southbound lane, the pickup slowed down. Id. at 147-148.2 Ortiz observed Matroni brake, cut into the left southbound lane, directly behind the tractor trailer, brake again, then cut back into the right southbound lane. Id. at 147-149. At that point, Matroni lost control of his car, swerved back into the left southbound lane, appearing to Ortiz to strike the tractor trailer, bounce off, then swerve and strike the tractor trailer again. Id. at 149-150, 154-156.

¶ 8 When asked to explain the result of the impact of Matroni's car with his tractor trailer, the tractor trailer driver testified that he felt a jolt, and his truck was pushed to the left. N.T. 3/2/05 at 96. Despite his best efforts to steer to the right, the truck would not respond and veered into the oncoming traffic in the northbound lanes, where it struck the vehicle driven by Susan Story. Id. at 96-98, 100-102. Mrs. Story died as a result of the multiple traumatic injuries caused by the collision. N.T. 3/3/05 at 226.

¶ 9 The Commonwealth also introduced testimony from Sergeant Jeffrey Jones, a vehicle collision analysis and reconstruction expert employed by the Manheim Township Police Department. N.T. 3/3/05 at 294. Sergeant Jones responded to the scene of the accident and performed a comprehensive investigation, which included mapping the scene, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and the involved parties, and inspecting the vehicles. Id. at 304, 369. As the result of his findings, Sergeant Jones expressed his unequivocal expert opinion that the cause of the collision between Matroni's car and the tractor trailer was Matroni's reckless driving, including speeding and erratic lane changes. Id. at 372. Sergeant Jones further rendered an unequivocal expert opinion that the collision between Matroni's vehicle and the tractor trailer in turn caused the tractor trailer to collide with Susan Story's vehicle. Id. at 369-371. Specifically, Sergeant Jones explained that Matroni's action in driving his vehicle into the right front wheel of the tractor trailer forced it to turn into the oncoming traffic where it collided with Susan Story's vehicle. Id. at 368-369.

¶ 10 We find that the above evidence, which showed that Matroni was speeding, tailgating, and erratically changing lanes, was sufficient to show that he acted in a reckless and grossly negligent matter.

¶ 11 "The concept of gross negligence is encompassed within the concept of recklessness as set forth in Section 302(b)(3) of the Crimes Code." Commonwealth v. Grimes, 842 A.2d 432, 434 (Pa.Super.2004) (citing Commonwealth v. Huggins, 575 Pa. 395, 836 A.2d 862 (2003)).3 Section 302, which pertains to the "General requirements of culpability," states that:

A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor's conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation.

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3).

¶ 12 Although Matroni asserts that his actions were not reckless, we disagree. His course of conduct immediately prior to the accident violated five separate provisions of the Vehicle Code. Matroni does not dispute that he violated Section 3736, which states that "any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving." 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3736(a). Nor does he argue that he was not in violation of Section 3310 when he tailgated the vehicles in front of him without due regard for their speed. 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3310. Neither does Matroni claim that he was driving at a safe speed in order to avoid violation of Section 3361. No challenge to his violation of Section 3304 for overtaking a vehicle on the right was made, and it is undisputed that he failed to comply with 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3309, by changing lanes without first ascertaining that the movement could be made with safety.

¶ 13 We find that Matroni's actions evidenced a conscious disregard of the substantial and unjustified risk that he would...

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