There is speculation that the accident involving the commuter train that derailed near the Hudson River recently could turn out to be a criminally negligent homicide investigation with potential charges against the engineer if there is enough evidence to support an indictment. At least four passengers died and dozens more were injured. Investigative reports reflect that the train may have been traveling at least 82 mph through a sharp “deadman’s curve”, which should normally be traveled at speeds of 30 mph for the safety of passengers and the train. NTSB iinvestigators will be looking at the equipment, track condition, weather conditions, and the driver’s responses to determine the exact cause of the accident. The engineer said he tried to apply the brakes, but they failed.
What Constitutes Criminal Negligent Homicide Offenses Under New York Law?
Under New York Law, criminally negligent homicide charges can result when death is caused by acts of gross negligent or reckless conduct. Depending on the facts surrounding the case, a person could be charged with either criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter or depraved indifference murder. Depraved indifferent murder carries the same penalty as deliberate and intentional murder or murder in the first degree in most states with substantial prison sentences ranging from one and one-half years to life.
While operating the commuter train at excessive high speeds may constitute reckless or grossly negligent conduct, New York Courts have looked to more than a single act of negligent conduct before instituting charges as serious as criminally negligent homicide. Typically prosecutions of this sort must show that the person was speeding and under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In this case, the engineer’s blood tested negative for alcohol. Brooklyn prosecutors will need to show that the engineer, Mr. Rockefeller, was not only speeding but operating the train while impaired or inattentive. The attorney for Mr. Rockefeller has admitted that Mr. Rockefeller was driving the train while dazed, which some argue could constitute a form of gross negligence.
However, even if Mr. Rockefeller is not charged with criminally negligent homicide, he and Metro North could face many civil lawsuits from victims and their families while having to answer to claims of negligence in training and monitoring of railroad personnel to explain why this accident happened when technology could have prevented the train from getting out of control from excessive speeds when entering a dangerous curve.
Similar cases have come before the New York Courts. In 1992, 39 year old Robert Ray, a New York subway motorman, was sentenced to 5-15 years in prison for reckless manslaughter regarding five subway passengers in a derailment he caused by speeding and drunk driving. He served 10 years.
While The National Transportation Board’s findings are not conclusive yet, if the investigation reveals that the accident was caused by human error on the part of Mr. Rockefeller, he could be looking at some serious charges and a prison sentence if convicted. If that is the case, having an experienced New York criminal defense attorney raising strong defenses on his behalf is what Mr. Rockefeller will need in order to get his charges dropped or get him acquitted.