State v. Jones, E2002-00893-SC-R11-CD

Citation151 S.W.3d 494
Decision Date23 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. E2002-00893-SC-R11-CD,E2002-00893-SC-R11-CD
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee v. Latrece JONES.
CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee

Ardena J. Garth, District Public Defender, and Donna Robinson Miller, Assistant District Public Defender, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the Appellant, Latrece Jones.

Paul G. Summers, Attorney General and Reporter; Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General; John H. Bledsoe, Assistant Attorney General; William H. Cox, III, District Attorney General; and C. Parke Masterson, Jr., Assistant District Attorney General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

OPINION

E. RILEY ANDERSON, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which FRANK F. DROWOTA, III, C.J. and JANICE M. HOLDER, WILLIAM M. BARKER, JJ., and J.S. DANIEL, SP.J., joined.

We granted this appeal to determine whether the evidence supported the defendant's conviction for criminally negligent homicide in the death of her two-year-old son. The child was riding on the defendant's lap in the front passenger seat of a rental car and was killed when the passenger-side air bag deployed in a collision. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction, concluding that the evidence was sufficient to sustain the jury's verdict, that the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause of the victim's death, and that the trial court did not err in admitting evidence regarding car seat safety. After carefully reviewing the record and the evidence, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence regarding car seat safety. However, we conclude that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction because the defendant's conduct did not constitute a gross deviation from the standard of care. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and dismiss the conviction. Because we dismiss the defendant's conviction due to insufficient evidence, we do not reach her arguments that her conduct was not the proximate cause of her son's death and that the trial court's instruction to the jury on proximate cause was error.

On November 9, 1998, defendant Latrece Jones, age eighteen, was riding in the front passenger seat of a rented Chevrolet Cavalier in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her two-year-old son, Carlon Bowens, Jr., was asleep in her lap. Carlon's aunt, Letitia Abernathy, had rented and was driving the rental car; five children and one adult sat in the backseat. At the intersection of Shallowford Road and Jersey Pike, another car failed to yield the right of way to the rental car, causing a collision ("the accident").1 Although the accident was not severe, the passenger-side air bag deployed. The force with which the air bag struck Ms. Jones' son broke his neck, killing him. No one else in the car was seriously injured.

Ms. Abernathy, the driver of the rental car, testified that she operated a day care business out of her home. The five children in the back seat, one of whom was her daughter, were under her care at the time of the accident. The children were aged seven years, six years, five years, four years, and nine months. Ms. Abernathy testified that she normally drove a jeep, but because she had been in an accident earlier in the day she had rented the Chevrolet. She testified that she normally had car seats for the children who required restraints but that she did not use them that day because there was not room in the Chevrolet. It was stipulated that the six passengers in the back seat were unrestrained.2

It was undisputed that only Carlon sustained serious injuries. Pediatric surgeon Dr. Joseph Earl Kelley, Jr., testified at trial that he had treated the victim and that the force of the air bag deployment had broken the child's neck. He testified that it was "not the type of injury that would typically be seen from motor vehicle accidents when children are unrestrained and thrown around." Dr. Kelley testified that an injury such as the one Carlon sustained is always fatal.

The prosecution introduced photos showing air bag warnings affixed to the rental automobile's visors and front-passenger seat belt. The visor warning was positioned on the side of the visor facing the passenger and read as follows:

!WARNING

DEATH or SERIOUS INJURY can occur

Children 12 and under can be killed by the air bag.

The BACK SEAT is the SAFEST place for children.

NEVER put a rear-facing child seat in the front.

Sit as far back as possible from the air bag.

ALWAYS use SEAT BELTS and CHILD RESTRAINTS.

The seat belt warning was positioned in the center of the passenger-side seat belt, although it is not clear from the record whether the warning would have been visible if the seat belt were not extended. The seat belt warning read as follows:

!CAUTION

A child in a REAR-FACING CHILD RESTRAINT can be badly injured by the air bag if it inflates. NEVER put a child in a REAR-FACING CHILD RESTRAINT in the front seat of this vehicle. Secure a REAR-FACING CHILD RESTRAINT in the rear seat.

Before Securing a forward-facing child restraint, ALWAYS move the passenger seat as far back as it will go. Or, secure the child restraint in the rear seat.

For more information, see your Owner's Manual and the instructions that came with your child restraint.

The prosecution also introduced other evidence in its effort to establish that Ms. Jones knew her son should have been in a child restraint and should not have been seated in front of an air bag. Lisa McClain, administrator for the Women's and Infant's Services Division at Erlanger Hospital, testified that when Ms. Jones was discharged after giving birth to Carlon, she would have been given a pamphlet on car seat safety and a videotape including information on car seat safety. The pamphlet included the warnings, "[n]ever hold a child in your lap while riding in either the front or back seat" and "[b]e consistent! Always buckle your child in the safety seat." Ms. McClain testified that the hospital's policy was to require parents to place the infant in the car seat themselves upon discharge from the hospital.

Finally, the prosecution offered the testimony of Brooke Pippenger, former assistant director of programs at the Children's Wellness Center, regarding a campaign the Center conducted in 1997 and 1998 aimed at educating the public on preventing injuries to children. Ms. Pippenger testified that the campaign included educating the public about vehicle safety. The State introduced into evidence two television news features and a collection of newspaper articles regarding car seat safety and the dangers of air bags related to the campaign. Ms. Pippenger testified, however, that she had never "f[ou]nd any law that made it illegal to put a child safety seat or a child in front of an air bag."

The jury convicted Ms. Jones of criminally negligent homicide in the death of her son, and the trial judge imposed a sentence of 0.9 years unsupervised probation. Ms. Jones appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals. She argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for criminally negligent homicide, that the jury instructions on proximate cause were erroneous, and that the trial court erred in admitting evidence about the child restraint law and the absence of car seats in the vehicle at the time of the crash. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected each of Ms. Jones' arguments and affirmed her conviction. We granted review.

ANALYSIS
Admissibility of Child Restraint Evidence

First, we address Ms. Jones' argument that the child restraint evidence introduced at trial was irrelevant and prejudicial because, as a passenger, she did not have a statutory duty to place her child in a car seat and because the medical evidence showed that the child was killed by the air bag. At oral argument, counsel for Ms. Jones asserted that even if Carlon had been in a car seat, he would have been killed by the air bag because he was seated in the front seat. The State counters that the evidence was relevant to show that Ms. Jones ignored well-known risks to the victim. We agree with the State that the evidence was admissible.

Ms. Jones argued to the trial court in a motion in limine and in her motion for a new trial that the car seat evidence should have been excluded as irrelevant and prejudicial. The trial court denied Ms. Jones' motion in limine in part and granted it in part. The court agreed to exclude evidence regarding Tennessee's car seat statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 55-9-602 (1998), because it did not apply to Ms. Jones as a passenger. However, the court declined to exclude evidence regarding information in the community regarding car seats. We review the trial court's decision for abuse of discretion. State v. Edison, 9 S.W.3d 75, 77 (Tenn.1999); State v. McLeod, 937 S.W.2d 867, 871 (Tenn.1996).

Evidence is relevant and therefore admissible if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Tenn. R. Evid. 401. However, relevant evidence may be excluded "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice...." Tenn. R. Evid. 403. Ms. Jones was charged with criminal negligence in the death of her son. Therefore the State's burden was to prove that in holding her son on her lap while traveling in a car, she failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk to her son and that her conduct was a gross deviation from the standard of care. Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 39-11-106 (2003), 39-13-212 (2003). Ms. Jones argues that the evidence was prejudicial because the State was trying to "inflame the jury" by showing Ms. Jones to be irresponsible. However, we agree with the State that the evidence was relevant to show that Ms. Jones was aware, or should have been aware, of the danger to an unrestrained child and that, in any event, its probative value was...

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