When the defendant’s conduct is so directly and substantially linked to a victim’s death, the defendant may be criminally liable for causing the victim’s death.
One evening, the Defendant and his girlfriend were seen having a serious argument at a bar. Shortly thereafter, the girlfriend left and got into her cab outside, which she drove for a living. The Defendant followed her and got into the driver’s side, shoving her into the passenger seat. The girlfriend was hanging out of the passenger window, screaming “help me, he’s trying to kill me,” while the Defendant ferociously beat her and pulled her hair. The Defendant pulled her back into the car and drove off. Soon after, the cab made a stop, and the girlfriend managed to escape. She ran to a car passing by and begged the driver to help her, while the Defendant was still chasing her from behind. The driver, scared, immediately sped off. The girlfriend was crushed under the car and was killed. The Defendant was charged with murder.
If the defendant’s conduct is so directly and substantially linked to the victim’s death, and is not so attenuated that it would be unfair to hold the defendant responsible, is the defendant criminally liable for the victim’s death?
It is difficult to draw a bright line between causation in the criminal law and in the tort law. In order to impose criminal liability, causation must be direct and substantial. This is a two-part inquiry. The first part of the test is whether the defendant’s conduct was an operative cause (and not necessarily the sole cause) of the victim’s death. Because it was highly foreseeable that the defendant’s violent conduct would result in his girlfriend’s death, it was an operative cause. The second part of the test raises the question of whether the result of the defendant’s actions are so remote or attenuated that it would be unfair to hold the defendant criminally liable. Again, because the Defendant placed his girlfriend in such a dangerous environment that forced her to run into a busy street in order to escape him, it is not unfair to hold him criminally liable for the consequences of his actions.