Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered June 10, 2009 at No. 37 WDA 2008, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County entered December 7, 2007 at No. CP-32-: CR-0001110-2006.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin
CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.
Sean Pearce was bicycling along a road when he collided with a construction barrel and fell onto the road. At least two vehicles, one driven by appellee, subsequently struck him, and his injuries proved fatal. Appellee later admitted driving along the road when, initially thinking he hit a speed bump, he looked in his mirror and saw a body in the road. Appellee did not stop at the scene or alert police. The Commonwealth charged appellee with failure to stop at an accident, failure to comply with a duty to give information and render aid, and failure to immediately notify the police.*fn1
Appellee filed a habeas corpus petition, seeking dismissal of these charges, as the Commonwealth could not prove Pearce was alive when appellee struck him. The trial court concluded the statutes required the victim to be alive at the time of the accident, reasoning "once a victim of an accident is dead, the accident concludes and the statutes cannot apply to vehicles that later come upon the scene." Trial Court Opinion, 12/7/07, at 11. The trial court granted appellee's petition and dismissed the information.
A divided panel of the Superior Court affirmed the trial court. Commonwealth v. Wisneski, No. 37 WDA 2008, unpublished memorandum at 7 (Pa. Super. filed June 10, 2009). The court found the statutes were unambiguous, and determined "[t]he Commonwealth . has the burden of establishing [a]ppellee was involved in an accident 'resulting in,' or had [sic] the consequence, effect, or conclusion of, injury or death." Id., at 6. Because the Commonwealth stipulated it could not prove the victim was alive when appellee's vehicle hit him, the court concluded it could not prove a violation of the statutes.
Judge Klein filed a dissenting statement, arguing this was a single accident, which included two vehicles hitting the victim; because appellee hit the victim in this ongoing accident, the statutes applied to him. Commonwealth v. Wisneski, No. 37 WDA 2008, unpublished memorandum at 1 (Pa. Super. filed June 10, 2009) (Klein, J., dissenting). Judge Klein also opined, "I believe a hypothetical reasonable legislator would want the person in the striking vehicle to stop, see what was going on, and get assistance." Id., at 2.
We granted allocatur on the following issue:
Where a motorist drives through the scene of a fatal accident and strikes the body of the accident victim, does the Commonwealth establish a prima facie case against the motorist for violating his duties to stop and render aid at the scene of the accident, if the Commonwealth is unable to prove that the victim was alive at the moment of the motorist's impact?
Commonwealth v. Wisneski, 991 A.2d 881, 881 (Pa. 2010) (table). "This is a purely legal question; thus, our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary." Commonwealth v. Patton, 985 A.2d 1283, 1286 (Pa. 2009) (citing In re Milton Hershey School, 911 A.2d 1258, 1261 (Pa. 2006)).
The Commonwealth argues the statutes apply to any driver "involved" in an accident, not just the driver who caused the accident. The Commonwealth submits the legislative purpose of these statutes is to require any motorist involved in an accident in which a human being is injured or killed, to stop, render aid, and notify police, and points out that under the predecessor statute, the Superior Court approved a jury instruction indicating the defendant had an obligation to stop even if another vehicle previously struck the victim. See Commonwealth v. Paterick, 361 A.2d 715, 719 (Pa. Super. 1976).
Appellee argues the statutes do not apply to him because a living victim is an element of the statutes; he contends the Superior Court properly concluded the statutes require the Commonwealth to show the victim was living at the time of the accident. Appellee believes Paterick did not decide whether the driver had an obligation to stop when another vehicle had previously struck the victim. He alleges legislative history indicates these statutes only apply to a driver who "'hits a human being and leaves that scene and that person dies.'" Appellee's Brief, at 13 (quoting PA H.R. Jour., 2005 Reg. Sess. No. 74, at 2386). Lastly, appellee contends other states have interpreted similar statutes to require a victim to be alive at the time of the accident.
Pearce's cousin filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Commonwealth. She observes the statute's language does not require the victim be living at the time of the accident. She suggests we should construe "injury" broadly enough to include post-mortem injuries, and argues the accident ended only after the last vehicle struck the victim, not when the victim died. Amicus contends appellee should not be excused from the universal statutory obligation to stop, notify, and aid merely because the victim may have died before being run over the ...