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Chicago Dentist Blames Brain Disease For Causing Fatal Car Accident

September 14, 2011

Last month, a Chicagoland dentist was arrested for allegedly driving his Porsche the wrong way down the Regan Tollway, crashing head on into another vehicle, killing a father and his daughter. Earlier this week, the lawyer for Dr. William Howe said his client has Huntington's disease and suggested this condition contributed to the crash. As a Chicago personal injury lawyer, I am concerned this argument may allow Dr. Howe avoid any responsibility for his (seemingly) reckless behavior.

Huntington's disease is a disease that is inherited and causes a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Most with Huntington's disease do not develop signs or symptoms until their they reach their 40s or 50s. The disease can cause movement, cognitive, and psychiatric disorders. Dr. Howe was reportedly diagnosed with Huntington's disease several years before the crash. According to his lawyer, the disease may have also contributed to Dr. Howe's decision to close his dental practice before the car accident.

Dr. Howe has been charged with two counts of reckless homicide. Generally, reckless homicide is killing one or more people through reckless behavior. Under Illinois criminal law, reckless homicide occurs when a person unintentionally kills an individual while acting recklessly acts (ie., acting in a way that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm).

Based on the criminal reckless homicide standard, the defense will surely argue Dr. Howe's disease did not allow him to appreciate that his behavior was likely to cause death or serious harm to others. Just before the crash, witness to the car accident reported Dr. Howe was throwing money out the window (while driving the wrong way down the highway). The defense will likely claim this odd behavior is strong evidence that Dr. Howe had an altered mental state such that he did not understand the ramifications of his behavior.

It is unclear whether there will ever be civil personal injury or wrongful death case filed against Dr. Howe. The burden of proof in a civil case is considerably lower. In a civil case, the plaintiff does not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence is simply what is likely true (or more probably true than not).

Assuming Dr. Howe did have Huntington's disease, we simply don't know how this may have altered his mental state at the time of the crash. For example, we do not know whether he was capable of understanding that driving down the wrong way of a highway was dangerous. It is hard to believe Dr. Howe did not know this. After all, he could have had impaired thinking yet still understood that, ultimately, driving the opposite direction down a highway is dangerous to others.

Whether in a criminal case or civil case, it is clear expert testimony will played a significant role. The defense will likely retain experts will testify that Dr. Howe did not appreciate that his behavior was reckless. The prosecution (or plaintiff in a civil case) will likely retain experts who will offer the opposite opinion. Unless the case settles, a jury will be asked to ultimately decide. Either way, this case just took a very interesting turn with the disclosure of Dr. Howe's purported Huntington's disease.

Source Used:

Chicago Tribune, Lawyer Says Brain Disease A Factor In Tollway Crash That Killed 2, September 14, 2011.

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