In Michigan, a man who killed a 23-year-old woman and her unborn baby in a car crash has been sentenced to 10 days in prison and two years probation. Additionally, he will be required to perform community service, wear a GPS tether for six months, receive random drug and alcohol screenings and have a mental health evaluation.
The crash took place last November when Clarence Heath’s Cadillac hit Kayla White’s 2003 Jeep Liberty as it slowed down during rush hour traffic and it flipped over and went up in flames. According to the Oakland County Medical Examiners Office, Kayla and her unborn son, Braedin, died from the flames that engulfed her car. Now her family plans to sue Fiat Chrysler, the makers of Kayla’s vehicle. The Detroit News reports that her Jeep was among 1.56 million recalled because of the risk of fire when hit from behind.
Kayla’s mother, Susan White, asked the judge involved in the case to consider the seriousness of the incident and give Heath a longer probation period. She told the court and Judge William J. Richards that Heath is responsible for her daughter’s death. She said, “Dear Mr. Heath, on Nov. 11, your distracted driving caused a chain of events that resulted in the death of our daughter and her unborn son, Braedin.”
Ultimately, the judge gave Heath a harsher sentence than the Probation Department’s recommendation because of the family’s request. Richards said, “It is inappropriate to call this an accident. It was a reckless act of driving with tragic consequences for an entire family. The sentence must reflect the seriousness of the crime and consequences of it.”
During the hearing, Heath pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and expressed his remorse for the collision. He said, “I’d like to say that my heart goes out to the family. I can’t imagine the feelings that they have by losing their daughter and their unborn child. I think about it every day, and I’m going to have to live with this for the rest of my life.”
Although officials say drugs and alcohol weren’t factors in the crash, Heath had three previous drunk driving convictions on his record.
Heath’s attorney, Douglas D. Hampton, argued the accident could have been a civil infraction “if there was no fire.”
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“Even if Ms. White’s car had not erupted in flames” it would have been a “tremendously serious accident with tremendously serious injuries,” Richards said.
Hampton, after sentencing, said he could not make an argument for the gas tank causing the death “because that’s a question of fact for a jury.” Michigan law, he said, also says there can be more than one cause of a death.
“That’s not my fight to fight now; that’s obviously the family and the plaintiff’s attorney’s fight to fight, Hampton said. “My question was whether or not (Heath) was the cause of the actual death.”
The Whites’ attorney, Gerald Thurswell, stressed the cause of death following the sentencing: “Her death was caused because of smoke inhalation and the fire,” he said. “But for the fire and the smoke inhalation, she would be alive today and so would the baby.”
The SUV driven by White is part of a recall campaign from 2013 of 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Gas tanks on the older Jeeps are located below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle, and can rupture, leak gasoline and catch fire if the SUVs are rear-ended.
Thurswell repeated his pledge to file a lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler in the months ahead. Heath “caused the accident, but he did not cause her death,” he said outside court. “The fire caused her death.”