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Defendant must pay funeral expenses for his victim who died during a fight

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. TYRON JACOB TROUT-LACY, Defendant and Appellant. (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 13, 2019, No. C1882419) 2019 WL 6816928

Summary: Tyron Jacob Trout-Lacy (defendant) fought with his victim, who was high on methamphetamine and had heart disease. Trout-Lacey punched the victim in the face multiple times and slammed his head against the ground. After first responders were called, they restrained the uncooperative victim in an effort to render medical aid. However, the victim and died.

Issue: whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding, in the context of a victim restitution order, that defendant’s conduct caused the victim’s death. We find no error and affirm.

Facts of the case: Cause of death

On January 27, 2018, the victim and Trout-Lacey got into a fight outside the San Jose home of a mutual friend. The victim had been using methamphetamine and had not slept in days. Trout-Lacey punched the victim in the face five times and slammed his head against the ground before leaving the scene. Emergency medical personnel arrived and handcuffed the victim because he was uncooperative. After being restrained, the victim became unresponsive and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

An autopsy revealed that the victim had “hypertensive (high blood pressure) changes of the heart, kidneys and brain [;] hypoxic-ischemic neuronal change in the hippocampus [;] fluid in the lungs [;] hepatitis [;] and hepatic fibrosis. There were no lethal traumatic injuries. The toxicology testing of postmortem blood revealed the presence of methamphetamine and its metabolite amphetamine.” The coroner identified the cause of death as “methamphetamine toxicity complicating hypertensive cardiovascular disease following and during physical encounters.” The report classified the manner of death as “undetermined” because the coroner was unable to determine “[t]he relative individual contributions of … the reported physical altercation [with defendant], physical restraint [by emergency personnel], presence of methamphetamine … in blood with underlying heart disease and evidence of recent … lack of oxygen ….” to the victim’s death.

Trout-Lacey charged with murder-accepts plea agreement for 4-year prison term

On January 31, 2018 Trout-Lacey charged defendant with murder (Pen. Code, § 187)1 and an allegation that he had a prior strike conviction (§§ 667, subd. (b)-(i); 1170.12). On July 11, 2018, the complaint was amended to add a second count, assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury (§ 245, subd. (a)(4)), and an allegation that defendant personally inflicted great bodily injury on the victim (§ 12022.7, subd. (a)). Trout-Lacey  pleaded no contest to the newly added count 2 and admitted the great bodily injury and strike prior allegations in exchange for the dismissal of count 1 and a four-year prison term.

Trout-Lacey was sentenced to a four-year term on count 2—the low term of two years, doubled by the strike. The court struck the additional punishment associated with the great bodily injury enhancement pursuant to section 1385, subdivision (b)(1).

Restitution Hearing: Trout-Lacey ordered to pay victim’s funeral expenses

The court held a restitution hearing and ordered Trout-Lacey to pay $4,169.11—the amount of the victim’s funeral expenses.  Trout-Lacey appealed from that order.

Restitution: Legal Principles and Standard of Review

With some exception, “in every case in which a victim has suffered economic loss as a result of the defendant’s conduct, the court shall require that the defendant make restitution to the victim or victims in an amount established by court order, based on the amount of loss claimed by the victim or victims or any other showing to the court….” (§ 1202.4, subd. (f).)

Tort principles applied to causation of death

Tort principles of causation are applied to determine whether a loss was a result of the defendant’s conduct. (People v. Holmberg (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1321 (Holmberg).) “Legal causation in tort law has traditionally required two elements ….” (South Coast Framing, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2015) 61 Cal.4th 291, 298 (South Coast Framing).)

Cause in fact: The ‘but for’ test

The first is cause in fact. “An act is a cause in fact if it is a necessary antecedent of an event.” (State Dept. of State Hospitals v. Superior Court (2015) 61 Cal.4th 339, 352 (State Hospitals).) “[T]he ‘but for’ test governs questions of factual causation” except in cases involving concurrent independent causes, in which case the “substantial factor” test applies.  “Concurrent independent causes … are multiple forces operating at the same time and independently, each of which would have been sufficient by itself to bring about the harm.” (Viner v. Sweet (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1232, 1240 (Viner).)

Public policy considerations

The second aspect of legal causation focuses on public policy considerations that limit an actor’s responsibility for the consequences of his conduct.2 (State Hospitals, supra, at p. 353.)

Standard of proof at a restitution hearing: Preponderance of the evidence-Reviewed for abuse of discretion

The standard of proof at a restitution hearing is preponderance of the evidence, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (Holmberg, supra, 195 Cal.App.4th at p. 1319.) We review a victim restitution award for abuse of discretion. (Id. at p. 1320.) “[W]here the specific issue is whether the court’s factual findings support restitution, we review those findings for substantial evidence.” (In re S.O. (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 1094, 1098.)

This case is governed by the ‘but for’ test: not ‘substantial factor test’

On appeal, Trout-Lacey argued that his conduct was neither a “substantial factor” in causing the victim’s death nor a “but-for” cause of the victim’s death. In State Hospitals, the California Supreme Court held  that the substantial factor test applies only where concurrent independent causes contribute to an injury. (Modisette v. Apple Inc. (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 136, 153, fn. 14.) Here there were not “multiple forces operating at the same time and independently, each of which would have been sufficient by itself to bring about the harm,” but rather “forces [that] operated in combination, with none being sufficient in the absence of the others to bring about the harm ….” (Viner, supra, 30 Cal.4th at p. 1240.) This case is governed by the but-for test, under which we ask whether the victim would have sustained the same harm absent (i.e., but for) the defendant’s conduct. (Id. at pp. 1240-1241.)

Trout Lacey argued that the evidence did not show that his conduct was a necessary antecedent of the victim’s death because the coroner was unable to determine “[t]he relative individual contributions of … the reported physical altercation, physical restraint, presence of methamphetamine … in blood with underlying heart disease and evidence of recent … lack of oxygen … ” to the victim’s death. However, the coroner’s citing of the fight as one of the “circumstances” that contributed to the victim’s death supports the inference that the victim would not have died but for that altercation. Had the fight with defendant not occurred, the victim would not have been restrained by first responders. That restraint also was identified by the coroner as a factor that contributed to the victim’s death.

Decision:  Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that defendant’s conduct was a “but-for “cause of the victim’s death. The award of victim restitution for funeral costs was not an abuse of discretion.

 

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