Intervening Medical Circumstances and Homicide in West Virginia – State v. Surbaugh

emergency roomWhen an individual is charged with committing a crime, a prosecutor has the obligation to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements of that crime in order to obtain a conviction. This often includes establishing that the defendant had the required mental state and that the defendant engaged in the actions he is alleged to have committed. In addition, for most crimes, a prosecutor must show that the actions of the defendant actually contributed to the injury that occurred. For instance, if a defendant touched a victim on the arm without permission, and the victim later broke her arm in an accident, the defendant would not be liable for an assault resulting in broken bones. It was not his touch that caused the injury but the intervening accident.

A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court considered whether intervening medical attention gone wrong can be a defense to homicide by a defendant who sought to injure, but did not initially kill, a victim.  In State v. Surbaugh, Julia Surbaugh shot her husband three times at close range.  Her husband was having an affair and had recently informed her that he intended to leave her and that he would seek custody of their children. Fearful that she might lose her kids, Ms. Surbaugh shot Mr. Surbaugh, placing three bullets in his sinus cavity.  Miraculously, the bullets became lodged and did not penetrate the brain. Mr. Surbaugh was able to call 911, wait for an ambulance, and tell doctors what had happened.  Several hours after the shooting, while being placed on a helicopter to head to a trauma hospital, Mr. Surbaugh fell into cardiac arrest and died.  At trial, Ms. Surbaugh presented evidence to suggest that his death was not a result of his shooting wounds, but that it was caused by a pulmonary edema resulting from a mistake by emergency medical personnel. According to the experts, they administered too much IV fluid while treating Mr. Surbaugh.

Ms. Surbaugh was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder by a jury. On appeal, she argued, among other claims, that there was insufficient evidence to prove that her shooting of Mr. Surbaugh caused his death because the intervening mistakes of the emergency medical professionals was the actual cause of death. Since the prosecutor had not shown that the gunshot wound she inflicted was the actual direct cause of death, Ms. Surbaugh argued for her conviction to be overturned.

The West Virginia Supreme Court noted the complexity of case law surrounding the intervening causation issue. Courts have acknowledged that when an intervening injury, or medical treatment, is the actual sole cause of death, a defendant may not be liable for homicide for the original violent act. While “mere contribution” to an already existing wound by a second individual will not excuse an original defendant’s actions, if the original wound made no contribution to the death of the victim, the original defendant will not be criminally responsible.

Here, however, the Supreme Court found that the evidence did not suggest that mistakes by emergency medical personnel were the sole independent cause of Mr. Surbaugh’s death. Instead, Mr. Surbaugh was only in the hospital because of the actions that Ms. Surbaugh took, and his gunshot wounds were clearly a contributing cause to his death.  As the court explained, any negligence by medical personnel was not “a new and independent force which broke the causal connection between the original act . . . and the injury . . . .” Accordingly, the court held that when a person inflicts a wound upon a victim who later dies, it is not a defense to homicide to argue that medical care in the treatment of the victim contributed to the death.

If you are being charged for a crime, it is important that you immediately seek the assistance of a qualified criminal defense attorney.  While it is one thing to be falsely accused of a crime, it can be equally as difficult to prove that the crime you committed was not, in fact, the cause of the injury, harm, or death that the victim experienced. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm may be able to help you. We have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Understanding the Insanity Defense In West Virginia – State v. Flemings

Appealing a Criminal Conviction in West Virginia – State v. Imoh

Circumstantial Evidence in West Virginia Criminal Cases – State v. Breckenridge