Commonwealth v. Root

The Facts

Defendant found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for death of his competitor when racing a car on a highway.  The competitor challenged defendant to the race and defendant accepted.  The speed limit on the highway was 50 mph; and the facts suggest they were going anywhere from 70 to 90 mph.  The road narrowed into a two lane highway when as the two approached an oncoming bridge.  Defendant was in the lead; and the competitor attempted to pass defendant by going in the opposite lane, hitting an oncoming truck.

Procedural History

Defendant found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.  The trial judge instructed the jury that “negligence or want of care on the part of the deceased is no defense to the criminal responsibility of the defendant.”


To convict of involuntary manslaughter, the unlawful and reckless conduct must be the direct cause of the death in issue.

The Issue

Whether an automobile race conduct as unlawful and reckless conduct can be a “sufficiently direct cause of death to warrant being charged with criminal homicide.”

The Holding/Reasoning

No, reversed.  The cause here could be sufficiently described as proximate cause found in tort law; but the proximate cause found in tort law is not sufficient to convict for involuntary manslaughter in criminal law. The defendant’s actions were not the proximate cause of the deceased’s death. “Where a second actor has become aware of the existence of a potential danger created by the negligence of an original tort-feasor, and thereafter, by an independent act of negligence, brings about an accident, the first tort-feasor is relieved of liability, because the condition created by him was merely a circumstance of the accident and not its proximate cause.”  The deceased was aware of the “dangerous condition created by the defendant’s reckless conduct in driving his automobile at an excessive rate of speed along the highway but, despite such knowledge, he recklessly chose to swerve his car to the left and into the path of an oncoming truck, thereby bringing about the head-on collision which caused his own death.


Does not agree that defendant’s reckless cause was not the direct cause of the competitor’s death.  He helped create all the circumstances of the victim’s death.  The proximate cause of tort law is the same as the proximate cause in criminal law; this has always been so.

Leave a Reply