State v. Vanderburgh

Citation489 P.3d 272
Decision Date17 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 35868-2-III,35868-2-III
CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Parties STATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Meegan M. VANDERBURGH, Appellant.

Kevin James Curtis, Winston & Cashatt, 601 W Riverside Ave. Ste. 1900, Spokane, WA, 99201-0695, for Appellant.

Larry D. Steinmetz, Rachel Elizabeth Sterett, Spokane County Prosecutor's Office, 1100 W Mallon Ave., Spokane, WA, 99260-2043, for Respondent.


Pennell, C.J.

¶ 1 Washington law holds drunk drivers strictly liable for their misconduct. An impaired driver who kills another person is guilty of vehicular homicide regardless of whether the victim contributed to their injuries. Liability can be escaped only when an unforeseeable superseding cause breaks the causal chain between the impaired person's driving and the victim's injuries.

¶ 2 Meegan Vanderburgh was driving drunk when she rear-ended a pickup truck that had stopped at an intersection for pedestrians. The force of Ms. Vanderburgh's vehicle caused the pickup to lurch forward and kill one of the pedestrians. Although the pedestrian had been crossing the street illegally and may also have been impaired, this misconduct was not an unforeseeable superseding act. At most, it was simply a concurrent cause of the pedestrian's death. As such, the trial court did not err in limiting evidence and instructions to the jury regarding the pedestrian's alleged misconduct. Ms. Vanderburgh's judgment of conviction is affirmed.


¶ 3 The facts giving rise to this case are relatively succinct. Daniel Nesdahl was driving his pickup truck westbound on Sprague Avenue in Spokane when he approached a green light at the intersection with Farr Road. It was dark and cold outside. Mr. Nesdahl was not impaired.

¶ 4 As he approached the intersection, Mr. Nesdahl saw two people in the crosswalk, illegally crossing Sprague Avenue against the light. One of the pedestrians was a man, walking his bicycle. The other individual was a woman, later identified as Cheryl Camyn. Both Ms. Camyn and the man were wearing dark clothing. About the same time Mr. Nesdahl noticed the pedestrians, his passenger did so as well and yelled at him to stop. Mr. Nesdahl quickly stopped short of the crosswalk.

¶ 5 Ms. Camyn and the male pedestrian stopped walking across the street at the same time the pickup came to a stop. The man then continued to walk his bicycle past the pickup, safely to the curb. Ms. Camyn followed, but paused in front of the pickup.

¶ 6 While Ms. Camyn was in front of the pickup, Meegan Vanderburgh's vehicle struck Mr. Nesdahl's pickup from behind. Ms. Vanderburgh's blood alcohol concentration was 0.13 at the time.1 She also had some tetrahydrocannabinol2 in her system. The impact from Ms. Vanderburgh's vehicle pushed Mr. Nesdahl's pickup forward an entire vehicle length, thereby striking Ms. Camyn and crushing her under the pickup.

¶ 7 Ms. Camyn suffered blunt head, chest, abdominal and pelvic injuries

. She died within 24 hours of sustaining those injuries. After her death, it was discovered Ms. Camyn had methamphetamine and other drugs in her system.

¶ 8 The State charged Ms. Vanderburgh with vehicular homicide by way of driving under the influence (DUI). Before and during trial, Ms. Vanderburgh sought to admit evidence from Ms. Camyn's blood toxicology report. Those requests were denied. The court reasoned that any relevance of the toxicology levels was outweighed by its potential to prejudice the trial's outcome.

¶ 9 The State presented testimony from a collision reconstructionist. He testified that both Ms. Camyn and Ms. Vanderburgh engaged in conduct contributing to Ms. Camyn's death. The reconstructionist explained Ms. Camyn was potentially impaired at the time of the incident and she was jaywalking at the time of impact.

¶ 10 The trial court denied Ms. Vanderburgh's request to have the jury instructed on the civil duties of drivers and pedestrians. The jury was instructed on the definition of superseding cause.

¶ 11 The jury found Ms. Vanderburgh guilty of vehicular homicide. She timely appeals.


¶ 12 In the published portion of this opinion, we address Ms. Vanderburgh's claims that the trial court erroneously refused to admit evidence and issue instructions relevant to the issue of superseding cause. Ms. Vanderburgh's remaining contentions are addressed in the unpublished portion of our decision.

Alleged errors pertaining to superseding cause

¶ 13 Ms. Vanderburgh contends the trial court deprived her of the constitutional right to present a defense, and committed instructional error, when it limited her ability to present evidence and instructions pertaining to superseding cause. But there is no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. State v. Jones , 168 Wash.2d 713, 720, 230 P.3d 576 (2010). Nor must the trial court issue jury instructions on irrelevant points of law. See State v. Souther , 100 Wash. App. 701, 710-11, 998 P.2d 350 (2000). As such, Ms. Vanderburgh's assignments of error turn on whether her proposed evidence and instructions were relevant to the issue of superseding cause.

¶ 14 Ms. Vanderburgh was charged with DUI vehicular homicide in violation of RCW 46.61.520(1)(a). That provision requires the state to prove (1) the defendant operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, (2) there was a proximate causal relationship between the defendant's act of driving and the victim's injury, and (3) the victim died within three years as a proximate result of the injury. Culpability under the DUI vehicular homicide statute does not turn on the manner in which the defendant operated their vehicle. State v. Rivas , 126 Wash.2d 443, 451, 896 P.2d 57 (1995) (interpreting former RCW 46.61.520 (1991)). The defendant's driving could have been " ‘flawless.’ " See id. at 453, 896 P.2d 57.3 Regardless, the law imposes absolute liability based on intoxication. State v. Burch , 197 Wash. App. 382, 407, 389 P.3d 685 (2016).4 The only limit on that liability is if the link between the defendant's driving and the victim's injury is too attenuated to constitute proximate cause. Id. at 406, 389 P.3d 685.

¶ 15 Proximate cause has two components: legal cause and actual cause. State v. Frahm , 193 Wash.2d 590, 596, 444 P.3d 595 (2019) (quoting Rivas , 126 Wash.2d at 453, 896 P.2d 57 ). The former is for the court to decide, the latter for the jury. Id . (quoting Hartley v. State , 103 Wash.2d 768, 778, 698 P.2d 77 (1985) ); Colbert v. Moomba Sports, Inc. , 163 Wash.2d 43, 51, 176 P.3d 497 (2008).

¶ 16 Legal cause is not at issue here and the parties do not argue otherwise. By operating her vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants, Ms. Vanderburgh engaged in illegal conduct. The injuries attributed to her conduct were precisely the type of harm that drunk driving laws were enacted to avoid. There was no delay in time or space between Ms. Vanderburgh's illegal conduct and the injuries to Ms. Camyn. As a result, legal cause was readily established. See Frahm , 193 Wash.2d at 598-99, 444 P.3d 595. Ms. Vanderburgh's case was properly sent to the jury to assess actual cause.

¶ 17 Actual cause is also known as " ‘but-for’ " causation.

Id . at 596, 444 P.3d 595 (quoting Hartley , 103 Wash.2d at 778, 698 P.2d 77 ). There can be more than one but-for cause of any given injury. However, an action is not a but-for cause of an injury if it is interrupted by a separate, intervening act. Id . at 600, 444 P.3d 595. In such circumstances, the intervening act is a superseding cause and eliminates the causal relationship between the defendant's conduct and the victim's injury.

¶ 18 The defense at trial focused on the issue of superseding cause. Utilizing WPIC 90.08,5 the trial court provided an instruction on superseding cause. We emphasize and enumerate portions of the instruction particularly relevant to our analysis:

If you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the driving of the defendant was a proximate cause of the death, it is not a defense that the conduct of the deceased or another may also have been a proximate cause of the death.
However, if a proximate cause of the death was a [1] new independent intervening act of the deceased or another which the defendant, in the exercise of ordinary care, should not reasonably have anticipated as likely to happen , the defendant's act is superseded by the intervening cause and is not a proximate cause of the death. [2] An intervening cause is an action that actively operates to produce harm to another after the defendant's act or omission has been committed or begun.
However, if in the exercise of ordinary care, the defendant should reasonably have anticipated the intervening cause, that cause does not supersede the defendant's original act and her act is a proximate cause. It is not necessary that the sequence of events or the particular injury be foreseeable. [3] It is only necessary that the death fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should have reasonably anticipated.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 521 (emphasis added).

¶ 19 Even reading the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Vanderburgh, the facts suggesting superseding cause are weak, at best. Referring to portions of the jury instruction enumerated above:

1. It can be reasonably anticipated that pedestrians will sometimes be in the roadway in violation of traffic laws.
2. Any misconduct on Ms. Camyn's part occurred before Ms. Vanderburgh drove her vehicle into Mr. Nesdahl's pickup truck. Ms. Camyn did not do anything to actively cause self-harm after Ms. Vanderburgh's vehicle forcefully contributed to the causal chain of events that culminated in Ms. Camyn's death.6
3. Death or injury to pedestrians is within the general field of danger that should be anticipated by a drunk driver.

¶ 20 Given the state of the evidence, the trial court did not err in limiting evidence and instructions on the subject of superseding cause. See State v....

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