State v. Steenberg Homes, Inc., 98-0104-CR

Decision Date03 December 1998
Docket NumberNo. 98-0104-CR,98-0104-CR
Citation223 Wis.2d 511,589 N.W.2d 668
PartiesSTATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. STEENBERG HOMES, INC., Defendant-Appellant. d
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

On behalf of the defendant-appellant, the cause was submitted on the briefs of James C. Reiher and Timothy W. Feeley of von Briesen, Purtell Roper, S.C. of Milwaukee.

On behalf of the plaintiff-respondent, the cause was submitted on the brief of James E. Doyle, attorney general, and Daniel J. O'Brien, assistant attorney general.

Before DYKMAN, P.J., EICH and ROGGENSACK, JJ.

ROGGENSACK, J.

Steenberg Homes, Inc. (Steenberg) appeals from a conviction of two counts of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle pursuant to § 940.10, STATS., and one count of causing great bodily harm by negligent operation of a vehicle pursuant to § 346.62(4), STATS., all arising out of an accident in which three bicyclists were struck by one of Steenberg's trailers after it detached from one of Steenberg's tractors as it was being driven by a Steenberg employee. Steenberg contends that it cannot be charged, as a matter of law, with negligent vehicular homicide under § 940.10, or causing great bodily harm by the negligent operation of a vehicle under § 346.62(4); that the evidence was insufficient to convict; that the charges in the information were not supported by probable cause; and that the prosecutor abused his charging discretion by charging Steenberg rather than Steenberg's employee with vehicular homicide. Because we conclude that: (1) §§ 940.10 and 346.62(4) may be applied to a corporation; (2) Steenberg's employees acted within the scope of their employment when they negligently operated or handled the tractor-trailer unit; (3) Steenberg did not establish and enforce a procedure to ensure that state and federal regulations applicable to the use of safety chains were followed; and (4) the evidence was sufficient for the circuit court to convict Steenberg of violating §§ 940.10 and 346.62(4), we affirm the judgment.

BACKGROUND

On August 8, 1995, Daniel Oliver, a Steenberg employee, was driving a Steenberg tractor-trailer when the trailer disengaged from the tractor and struck three bicyclists who were riding on the shoulder of the road. Two of the bicyclists were killed, and the third was seriously injured.

Oliver began his employment as a truck driver with Steenberg on July 31, 1995. During the week of July 31, 1995, Paul Cwikla, a Steenberg employee, trained Oliver. Cwikla showed Oliver the trailer hookup procedures. Under Cwikla's supervision, Oliver hooked and unhooked the coupling devices and safety chains, and he drove a tractor hauling a mobile home. He also drove with another driver and was involved with at least four other trailer hookups during his training period. Oliver understood that he was responsible for his tractor-trailer's equipment, safety, and operation. After Oliver completed his training, Cwikla gave a positive evaluation approving Oliver to drive on his own. On August 7, 1995, Oliver drove a tractor hauling a mobile home. He hooked and unhooked the coupling devices and safety chains between the tractor and trailer without any problems.

On August 8, 1995, the day of the accident, Oliver, Cwikla, and another employee loaded timbers onto the trailer. Oliver backed up his tractor to the loaded trailer, and Cwikla attached the coupler to the ball hitch between Oliver's tractor and the trailer. Neither Cwikla nor Oliver attached the safety chains.

After Oliver left the lot, he operated the truck in a safe and prudent manner, driving at an appropriate speed. When he reached a hill overlooking a bridge, he saw three bicyclists riding along the roadway. Before he passed them, he slowed, beeped his horn, and moved to the center of the road. As he drove past the bicyclists, the trailer disengaged from the tractor and hit the bicyclists. If either the ball hitch or the safety chains had been properly attached, the trailer would not have disengaged and struck the bicyclists.

On May 9 and 10, 1996, the State conducted an inquest to determine the cause of the accident. At the inquest, evidence was presented which showed that prior to this accident, no Steenberg tractor-trailer had ever On September 11, 1996, the State filed an information charging Steenberg with two counts of homicide by the negligent operation of a vehicle, pursuant to § 940.10, STATS., and one count of causing great bodily harm by the negligent operation of a vehicle, pursuant to § 346.62(4), STATS. The circuit court found probable cause to believe that Steenberg committed the crimes in the information. Thereafter, Steenberg filed a motion to dismiss the information on the grounds that no probable cause existed to charge Steenberg with criminal negligence in the operation or handling of a vehicle. The circuit court denied the motion to dismiss.

disengaged causing injury, and there had never been any previous problem with the utility trailer or its hitch, although it was difficult to determine when the hitch was locked. However, Steenberg had not established a procedure to ensure that the ball hitch and safety chains were both secure before a tractor-trailer entered a public roadway. At the conclusion of the proceeding, the jury concluded that probable cause existed to charge Steenberg with two counts of second-degree reckless homicide, pursuant to § 940.06, STATS.

On October 1, 1997, a trial was conducted before the circuit court on stipulated facts from the inquest. The court convicted Steenberg of all three offenses on the grounds that the Steenberg employees, acting within the scope of their employment, were negligent for failing to attach the safety chains; that Steenberg failed to ensure that necessary safety procedures were followed by employees in order to avoid a substantial risk of death or great bodily harm; and that the lack of the safety chains was a cause of the accident. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

Standard of Review.

This case presents a question of statutory interpretation, which we review de novo. Truttschel v. Martin, 208 Wis.2d 361, 365, 560 N.W.2d 315, 317 (Ct.App.1997).

In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction, 1 we do not substitute our judgment for that of the trier of fact unless the evidence, viewed most favorably to the State and the conviction, is so lacking in probative value and force that no reasonable trier of fact could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Holtz, 173 Wis.2d 515, 518, 496 N.W.2d 668, 669 (Ct.App.1992).

Section 940.10, STATS. 2

Under Wisconsin's homicide by the negligent operation of a vehicle statute, "[w]hoever causes the death of another human being by the negligent operation or handling of a vehicle is guilty of a Class E felony." Section 940.10, STATS.

Steenberg claims that § 940.10, STATS., does not apply to it as a matter of law because: (1) corporations cannot be charged with negligent vehicular homicide; (2) the trailer was not a "vehicle" and Steenberg was not "operating" or "handling" it; and (3) Oliver was not acting within the scope of his employment when he failed to hookup the safety chains.

1. Corporations and negligent vehicular homicide.

Steenberg contends that § 940.10, STATS., does not apply to it because corporations cannot be charged with negligent vehicular homicide. We previously addressed this argument in State v. Richard Knutson, Inc., 196 Wis.2d 86, 93-107, 537 N.W.2d 420, 422-427 (Ct.App.1995), and we concluded that corporations may be charged with and convicted of homicide by the negligent operation of a vehicle in violation of § 940.10. We do not have the authority to overrule our own

opinions. Cook v. Cook, 208 Wis.2d 166, 189-90, 560 N.W.2d 246, 256 (1997). Therefore, Knutson conclusively decides this question.

2. Statutory language.

Under § 939.22(44), STATS., a "vehicle" is "any self-propelled device for moving persons or property or pulling implements from one place to another, whether such device is operated on lands, rails, water, or in the air." The word "operation" is not defined in the criminal code; however, the word "operate" is defined in the traffic code under § 346.63(3)(b), STATS., as "the physical manipulation or activation of any of the controls of a motor vehicle necessary to put it in motion." Finally, since the word "handling" is not defined in the statutes, we look to the standard dictionary definition for guidance. 3 The word "handle" means "[t]o control, direct, to deal with, to act upon, to perform some function with regard to or to have passed through one's hands." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 716 (6th ed.1990).

No Wisconsin case addresses the maintenance, loading or method of attaching a trailer to a tractor as a basis for criminal negligence; however, the statutory language is broad enough to encompass such a situation. Although the trailer itself was not a "self-propelled device," it was attached to a self-propelled device, the tractor, by the coupling. Once the tractor and trailer were connected, they became a tractor-trailer unit, and this unit was a "vehicle" for the purposes of § 940.10, STATS. The coupling device and the safety chains, which were supposed to connect the tractor and trailer, are the very mechanisms that Steenberg negligently controlled. Either Oliver or Cwikla, or both, failed to properly perform the functions of coupling the tractor to the trailer and attaching the safety chains; therefore, they were negligent in "handling" the vehicle.

3. Scope of employment.

Steenberg contends that it cannot be criminally liable for the conduct of its employee, Oliver, because Oliver knew that he was responsible for safely maintaining and coupling the tractor-trailer. Therefore, Steenberg argues that Oliver was not acting within the scope of his employment when he negligently coupled...

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    ...value and force that no reasonable trier of fact could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Steenberg Homes, Inc., 223 Wis. 2d 511, 517, 589 N.W.2d 668, 671 (Ct. App. 1998),review denied, 225 Wis. 2d 489, 594 N.W.2d 384 (1999) (citation Fifth Amendment Right to Remain Silent......
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