SUPERIOR COURT IRONS OUT “HIT and RUN” CASE INVOLVING A LAUNDROMAT

The PA Superior Court has recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Odom, No. 617 MDA 2018 (February 11, 2019), holding that term “attended” under the “hit and run” statute is not synonymous with “occupied;” rather, it requires the presence of someone who is “available to take care of the property” before it triggers a driver’s duty to stop, give information and render aid. 

It was laundry day for Odom. He visited the local commercial laundromat and, when he left at one point, his vehicle struck a steel awning pole, driving it through the front plate glass window of the laundromat which was then occupied by at least three patrons. Odom did not provide any information to any of the patrons present just feet away from the shattered plate glass window nor did he contact or provide information to law enforcement officers. He also chose not to remain at the window or remain at the scene following the accident. What’s more, he failed to use any of the posted emergency numbers to contact owners of the laundromat to notify them of the damage he caused or, to provide information for their future reference.

What Odom did do was return to the laundromat to attend to his laundry. Twice. The first time, he moved his clothes from the washer to a dryer. (At that time, the awning pole that he struck was still protruding through the front window of the laundromat.) The second time he returned, he got his laundry from the dryer and left the premises in the same vehicle he was operating when he struck the awning.

The commercial coin operated 24-hour laundromat’s owner lives outside the county in which the incident occurred. Neither he nor any employee of the laundromat were present at the time of the accident. 

Police were provided with the license plate information of the vehicle that caused the damage by the patrons who witnessed the incident. The registration for the vehicle came back to Odom. Police ultimately tracked Odom down and he was charged with “accidents involving damage to attended vehicle or property” under Section 3743(a) of the Vehicle Code. 

Although Section 3743(a) is frequently referred to as “hit and run,” in this case, the alleged offense at issue could more accurately be characterized as a “hit and run and return-to-finish-your-laundry and then, run.”

After being charged, Odom chose to proceed with a trial by judge and, he was subsequently convicted. He appealed, raising the issue of whether an unsupervised laundromat constituted “attended property” within the meaning of the Motor Vehicle Code. Specifically, he argued that since only customers were present at the time of the accident and not the owner or employees of the property, the property was not “attended” as contemplated by the statute and prior case law.

The Superior Court noted that the Vehicle Code at issue provides in relevant part: 

(a) General rule.—The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting only in damage to a vehicle or other property which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of the accident until he has fulfilled the requirements of section 3744 (relating to duty to give information and render aid). 

75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3743

After reviewing the statute, the appellate Court concluded that the 24-hour, coin-operated laundromat was not “attended” within the meaning of the Vehicle Code when Odom’s vehicle backed into the pole, causing it to crash through the front window of the laundromat. Although it was occupied by three patrons, neither the owners nor any employees or agents of the owners were present at the laundromat at the time of the accident. 

The Court further explained that “it is not sufficient that a property is occupied for purposes of Section 3743(a). The term ‘attended’ under Section 3743(a) is not synonymous with occupied but means present and available to take care of the property.”

Here, the laundromat was not being looked after, watched over or otherwise guarded by an owner, employee, or agent at the time in question. 

Accordingly, the Superior Court conclude that the trial court erred in finding Odom guilty and, his judgment of sentence was therefore vacated.

CASE LINK:

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/Opinion%20%20Vacated%20%2010387647150847048.pdf?cb=1

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