Dorothy Operhall, 56, Melina Helbig, 48, and Leonard Simmons, 51, were sadly killed in a Lakeland, Florida car accident early Sunday. Robert Helbig Jr., 50, survived the accident but was seriously injured and remains hospitalized. According to news sources, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) reports that the other driver, 21-year-old Edward Casey McCoy, is under investigation for DUI.
As a Florida personal injury lawyer, I can tell you that instances of drunk driving car accidents that result in death, are far too common on Florida’s roadways. That said, it is important to recognize that this case is still under investigation, no arrests have been made, and that no final or concrete conclusions can be made just yet.
According to the PCSO, there is evidence that Edward McCoy had been drinking. While investigators are waiting on the results of a toxicology screen, police are giving heavy consideration to McCoy’s driving pattern – which may be consistent with an impaired driver.
PCSO reports that not only was McCoy speeding, but he had been driving his pickup truck in an erratic and reckless manner. PCSO also claims that McCoy even ran a witness off the road before crashing into the car occupied by Dorothy Operhall, Melina Helbig, Leonard Simmons, and Robert Helbig.
From a legal standpoint, this case is a cross-over between a traditional car accident investigation and a criminal DUI investigation. Specifically, this is a DUI Manslaughter investigation.
A couple things to know about these types of investigations:
1) Driving Pattern:
They always start with the accident. Driving pattern is one of the first things any DUI investigator looks at.
2) Physical Signs of Impairment:
Next, investigators pay close attention to the physiological indicators of impairment that a DUI suspect may exhibit. These include:
- Red, bloodshot, watery eyes
- Odor of alcoholic beverage or burnt cannabis
- Slurred speech
- Trouble walking or maintaining balance
- Incoherent thought processes
3) Field Sobriety Exercises:
If the DUI suspect is physically capable, the next step in the DUI Manslaughter
investigation would cover “Field Sobriety Exercises” also known as “FSE’s.” Most people have heard of these exercises. The most common field sobriety exercises include the following:
- Horizontal gaze nystagmus
- Finger to nose
- Walk the line and turn
- One leg stand
The purpose of these exercises is to determine if a person is impaired by alcohol, a controlled substance, or some other chemical substance… to the point where their normal faculties are impaired.
Since driving is considered a “divided attention task” (meaning it has a physical and a mental component), field sobriety exercises are designed to mimic driving by forcing a DUI subject to perform a simple physical task (like walking) while performing a simple mental task (like counting) simultaneously.
When a person is impaired by alcohol, drugs, or a chemical substance, these exercises flush out their impairment. Some people get stupid when drunk, others lose motor skills, while yet others are both a mental and physical mess.
Few people have the tolerance to truly beat every exercise. If impaired, it will come out at one time or another during the exercises.
4) Breath/Blood/Urine Testing:
Under Florida law, police investigators are allowed to draw blood from a DUI suspect when someone is either seriously injured or killed in a car accident. However, under the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Missouri v. McNeely.pdf, it is unconstitutional for police to draw blood without first getting a search warrant. Since this ruling is so new, it has yet to be determined if this opinion will invalidate the Florida Statute permitting blood draws in certain limited instances, such as car accidents involving death or serious bodily injury.
Regardless, the point of breath, blood, or urine testing is obvious: to determine if a person has alcohol, drugs, or chemicals substances in their system and if so, in what quantities. Unfortunately, urine testing doesn’t tell us much about quantity.
Since this case is a cross-over between a typical car accident investigation and a DUI Manslaughter investigation, a number of overlapping things are happening. First, the crash investigation is ongoing. This has already begun with photographing, mapping, and investigating the scene of the accident. It has also included identifying eye witnesses and taking statements from those people.
With time, it will also include recovery of on-board computers from both vehicles to ascertain speeds, breaking, as well timing of air bag deployment.
Such data points are critical in cases like these because they help assess liability. For example, I fully expect the data recorder from the pick-up truck to show that McCoy was traveling at a very high rate of speed fractions of a second before his air bags deployed.
This information is important because it would tell us he was breaking the law at the time of the crash… thereby proving he is the responsible party.
While the crash investigation is ongoing, police are also conducting their DUI Manslaughter investigation. The key part of that investigation will likely hinge on the outcome of the toxicology report, which will be available within the next 30 days or so.
In the United States, we have two different types of cases that are litigated in our courts: Civil and Criminal. If McCoy is charged with DUI Manslaughter, that case would obviously be brought in the criminal courts and would be prosecuted by the State of Florida.
However, the surviving heirs of Dorothy Operhall, Melina Helbig, Leonard Simmons, and Robert Helbig may all be entitled to bring a civil action against McCoy for wrongful death. For such a civil action to prevail, three basic elements must be present:
1) Proof that McCoy is liable for causing the accident 2) Proof of injury caused by McCoy (this is obvious here)
As a personal injury attorney and former DUI prosecutor, I strongly suspect that it will be easy to prove that McCoy is responsible for causing this fatal car accident. I also suspect that proving he caused the deaths of Dorothy Operhall, Melina Helbig, Leonard Simmons, and Robert Helbig will also be easy to accomplish.
That said, I believe the civil aspects of this horrible case will come down to whether or not McCoy had adequate insurance, and if not, whether Dorothy Operhall, Melina Helbig, Leonard Simmons, and Robert Helbig had adequate uninsured motorist coverage.
If either McCoy and/or Dorothy Operhall, Melina Helbig, Leonard Simmons, or Robert Helbig have the requisite insurance, a personal injury attorney should be able to make a claim for appropriate compensation.
In fact, cases like these typically result in a tender of policy limits before the filing of a law suit.
Cases like these are always highly emotional for families and loved ones because the loss is just so tragic and unexpected. No person wakes up in the morning expecting to be killed in a tragic car accident.
A case like this is a prime example of how dangerous Florida’s roadways can be, especially if alcohol comes into play… which is suspected, but not yet confirmed, in this case.
Most importantly, my condolences go out to the families. I can’t even begin to imagine their grief. I pray that they will seek solace from their loss soon.