Trial court’s failure to define “criminal negligence” in jury instructions was harmless error where the instructions and arguments of counsel correctly informed the jury of the elements of the crime. Defendant Kumar raced a codefendant down a parkway, hitting the victim’s car and causing a fatal car accident. Defendant was convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence (Pen. Code, § 192, subd. (c)(1)) and sentenced to two years in prison. During trial, the jury was instructed on both the felony offense and the lesser included misdemeanor offense of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence. On appeal, Kumar argued the trial court prejudicially erred by giving confusing instructions on the required mental state for the offenses. Held: Affirmed. Gross negligence occurs when a person commits an act that is “so different from how an ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation that his or her act amounts to disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences of that act.” (CALCRIM No. 592.) Courts have used the terms “gross negligence” and “criminal negligence” interchangeably. Here, the trial court correctly instructed the jury on the required level of negligence for each offense, including gross negligence for the charged felony offense, and ordinary negligence for the lesser included misdemeanor offense. However, in two other jury instructions, the court used the term “criminal negligence” as a catch-all term to encompass both gross and ordinary negligence, instructing the jury they could not find defendant guilty unless he acted with “criminal negligence.” This was error. However, any error was harmless under Watson. The instructions for each offense and the arguments of counsel emphasized the differences between “gross negligence” and “ordinary negligence,” and made clear to the jury that the two crimes involved distinct levels of negligence.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/A150107.PDF