Road work tragedy inspires call for negligent driving penalty with more punch
Almost two years ago to the day, a pair of Worcester County employees were filling potholes on Greenbackville Road in Stockton when they were struck by a car.
Despite complaining to a doctor days earlier about cataracts so severe "it was like driving through a cloud" and quitting his job as a delivery driver because it was unsafe, then-60-year-old Marion Jones got behind the wheel on Feb. 22, 2016, Interim Worcester State's Attorney Bill McDermott said during testimony before a General Assembly committee.
After Jones hit 48-year-old Scott Tatterson and 23-year-old Wade Pusey, Tatterson died at the scene. Pusey was rushed to the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore with critical injuries and remained hospitalized for more than five weeks.
Jones was ultimately convicted of reckless driving and negligent driving and given a $500 fine for each offense, according to Maryland's online case records.
For the second year in a row, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, R-38C-Worcester, is introducing House Bill 406, legislation that looks to provide a "just penalty" for prosecutors to work with compared to what is available under current law in cases like this one.
If passed, she said the change would establish the offense of causing life-threatening injury by motor vehicle or vessel as criminal negligence.
The change proposed in Carozza's legislation would increase the potential penalty to up to 18 months in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.
The legislation has received endorsements from the Maryland Chiefs of Police, Maryland Sheriffs' Association, County Resident Action for Safer Highways group and Maryland State's Attorneys' Association.
"It provides a more just penalty for people like Wade Pusey, who have suffered not only life-threatening, but as I would say, life-sustaining injuries as a result of criminally negligent driving," Carozza said
McDermott as well as Wade and his mother, Sharon Pusey, testified with Carozza in favor of the bill during a House Judiciary Committee meeting Feb. 7. The bill will be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday.
Not a typical case
McDermott, who prosecuted the case alongside then-State's Attorney Beau Oglesby, said in an interview that he encountered an issue he'd never dealt with before as he tried to seek justice for Pusey and Tatterson.
Typically, cases involving criminally negligent driving also include an element of impairment, McDermott said, meaning the driver was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the crash.
A few years prior to the crash that injured Pusey and killed Tatterson, McDermott said what has become known as the "Baby Ava" case inspired lawmakers to increase the penalties for those who drive under the influence and cause life-threatening injuries. A driver who was high on drugs struck a car with a baby in the backseat, nearly killing the child.
In the case of Pusey's injuries, those increased penalties didn't apply because there was no impairment. But passing this legislation, McDermott said, isn't just about Pusey.
"It's about the guy tomorrow who gets maimed under serious circumstances and the prosecutor who doesn't have the tools in his toolbox to fix the problem," he said. He described Pusey as one of his personal heroes.
Not only has he defied significant odds by even surviving the crash, McDermott said, but now he's returned to work and is collaborating with officials to ensure prosecutors have the tools they need.
Fighting for change
As he arrived on scene in the immediate aftermath of the crash, McDermott said he was told it was almost certain that Pusey wasn't going to make it.
"In fact, I went back to my office and when I came back, I had the charging documents prepared, two of them, one for the manslaughter of Scott Tatterson and one for the manslaughter of Wade Pusey because he wasn't supposed to live," he said.
The first time he met Pusey, McDermott said it had been a few weeks since the crash and he was still lying in a hospital bed. Doctors believed he might never walk again.
Not only had he suffered several traumatic injuries, including a broken back, fractured skull and shattered ankle, but Sharon said he was also battling an infection and blood clot in his lungs.
At the scene, Sharon said he inhaled a lot of water after landing in a ditch filled with water, leading to serious infection. Had it not been for a pair of passersby who pulled him out of the ditch, she said he likely wouldn't have survived.
He spent most of his five and a half weeks at Shock Trauma in critical condition, she said. It was at least three weeks into his hospitalization before the family finally felt he was out of the woods.
"A few weeks later, I hear that Wade is not only living, but he's doing well," McDermott said.
The next time he met Wade he was in a wheelchair, but able to stand. By the time the trial rolled around in August 2016, he said Wade was able to walk into the courtroom.
Even though he has a "lifetime of struggle" ahead of him, Sharon said it felt great when they were finally able to bring him home after weeks in the hospital and a week-and-a-half in a rehab facility.
"That was the best feeling to be able to have your child back home, to know that he fought so hard to be able to come where he is today is the best feeling a mother can ever have," she said.
It was "heartbreaking" though to realize that the maximum penalty Jones would face for causing injuries that Wade will deal with for the rest of his life was a $500 citation, she said.
It feels amazing, she said, to have people like McDermott and Carozza fighting for this legislation, and she hopes that lawmakers will pass it so that no family has to suffer what hers has had to endure.
McDermott said it could have an impact in cases where the state can prove that a driver was texting and driving during a collision that left a victim paralyzed, for example. Just like with Wade, there's no charge available for causing life-threatening injury in those cases.
"Nothing. Zero recourse other than the $500 fine," he said. "I think we're going to see this law applied to those types of situations probably more generally than a narrower set of circumstances, which includes the cataracts," he said.