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State v. Palmer

Supreme Court of Maine

August 22, 2017

STATE OF MAINE
v.
THOMAS E. PALMER

          Argued: May 10, 2017

          Jeffrey C. Toothaker, Esq. (orally), Ellsworth, for appellant Thomas E. Palmer.

          Jonathan R. Liberman, District Attorney (orally), District Attorney's Office, Bath, for appellee State of Maine.

          Margaret Machaiek, Esq., Briggs & Wholey, Rockport, for amicus curiae Maine Trial Lawyers Association.

          Lauri Boxer-Macomber, Esq., and Stephen Koerting, Esq., Kelly, Remmel & Zimmerman, Portland, for amicus curiae The Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          HUMPHREY, J.

         [¶1] Thomas E. Palmer appeals from adjudications entered by the trial court (Sagadahoc County, Raimondi, /.) after a consolidated nonjury trial that found that Palmer committed the traffic infraction of "failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle, " 29-A M.R.S. § 2118(2)(B) (2016), and committed the civil violation of "motor vehicle violation resulting in death, " 29-A M.R.S. § 2413-A(1) (2016). Palmer contends that the court erred in its interpretations of the relevant statutes and that the evidence was insufficient to support the court's adjudications. We affirm the judgments.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following factual findings are supported by competent evidence in the trial record. On August 13, 2015, at around 4:30 p.m., Palmer crashed his truck into the rear end of a car also driving northbound on Route One in Woolwich. Before the crash, the driver of the car had activated his turn signal and slowed down to turn left onto a side road. Due to oncoming southbound traffic, the driver of the car was not able to turn immediately, so he came to a stop and waited for an opportunity to turn. The driver looked in his rearview mirror and saw Palmer's truck "coming up behind him and coming up behind him, " swerve toward the yellow center line as it came closer to his car, and then swerve back toward the white fog line at the last second. Palmer's truck then crashed into the driver's car. The impact pushed the driver's car into the southbound lane of traffic, where it collided with a van. The van spun into the northbound lane, where it collided with an SUV. A passenger in the van died from injuries caused by the crash.

         [¶3] At the time of the crash, the road was dry, the driver's turn signal was on, and there was nothing that would have obscured Palmer's view. Palmer did not apply the brakes before his truck crashed into the car. During interviews conducted after the crash, Palmer stated that he "looked up, " saw the car right in front of him, and tried to swerve away.

         [¶4] On August 31, 2015, a law enforcement officer issued Palmer a violation summons and complaint for the traffic infraction of failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle. See 29-A M.R.S. § 2118; 29-A M.R.S. § 103 (2016); M.R. Civ. P. 80F(b). On December 22, 2015, the State charged Palmer in a single-count complaint with the civil violation of "motor vehicle violation resulting in death". See 17-A M.R.S. § 4-B (2016); 29-A M.R.S. § 2413-A; M.R. Civ. P. 80H(b). Palmer contested the traffic infraction and entered a "deny" plea to the civil violation charge. The cases were consolidated for a nonjury trial, which the court held on April 7, 2016.

         [¶5] After the State and Palmer rested and delivered closing arguments, the court rendered its findings of fact and conclusions of law orally on the record. The court stated:

Whatever distracted [Palmer], the evidence indicates . . . that he was distracted. Whether the [L]egislature intended or whether the statute means that it has to be . . . something as definite as texting or as definite as reading a paper is not entirely clear to me. But if he weren't distracted, I think he ...

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