Legal experts say the four Pennsylvania young men punished in criminal court for maiming an Ohio schoolteacher with a rock tossed from a highway overpass could now be held responsible in civil court for her husband’s suicide.
Brothers Brett and Dylan Lahr along with Tyler Porter and Keefer McGee were all teenagers when they were given varied jail sentences last year for launching a near 5-pound rock off of a highway overpass on July 10, 2014. The rock crashed through a windshield and into the head of Sharon Budd, who faced multiple brain surgeries and continues to recover from her injuries.
Randy Budd, 55, who had been his wife's caretaker since the 2014 accident, died at his Uniontown, Ohio, home late Saturday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Harry Campbell, chief investigator for Ohio's Stark County coroner's office, told The Associated Press. Budd was home with his wife at the time, and was texting family members and telling them he loved them, according to the Canton Repository newspaper.
Union County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney D. Peter Johnson said the four men can’t be held criminally liable for Randy Budd’s death. However, if the suicide was proven to be the result of his wife’s injuries, the men could face civil penalties, said Williamsport, Pennsylvania attorney Cliff Rieders.
"I would say his estate would have a claim … if they could show the causal relationship between the act of the rock throwers and his suicide," Rieders said.
Rieders authored several texts on tort law, one of which addresses bystander liability and wrongful death. Randy Budd witnessed his wife’s injuries occur, he himself was within the "zone of danger" and he could have potentially suffered serious physical harm, Rieders said.
"The spouse was in the car and in the zone of danger. But you still have to prove causation. You still have to prove a cause and effect relationship," Rieders said.
Robert Power, professor emeritus at Widener University, said proving such cases isn’t easy. It has to be foreseeable, he said, that Randy Budd’s death could have resulted as a result of the four males’ actions.
"Assuming he was so disheartened and his way of life changed so much, you could say their actions also caused his death. The law would recognize that," Power said.
Randy Budd was his wife’s caretaker, and he pushed for protective fencing to be installed along highway overpasses. His home state of Ohio approved such measures, and similar legislation is taking shape in the Pennsylvania Legislature, too.
Pennsylvania Sen. Gene Yaw is preparing legislation to introduce and had been in communication with Randy Budd. Yaw received a text message from him on Saturday night, a few hours before the Ohio man died, urging the state senator to continue pushing.
"I never saw it until the next day," Yaw said.
"We intend to go forward with it under any circumstances. The whole backward irony in this whole thing is he wanted to accomplish something, and that was happening," Yaw said.
Like many, Yaw and Johnson, the district attorney, said they can’t shake the senselessness of how this all began with a rock and a passing vehicle.
"It ruined one person’s life and killed another one," Yaw said.
Johnson called Randy Budd "open and articulate" and said he admired the man’s ability to persevere.
"Just like everybody else, everybody who watched this thing unfold, I was devastated by this to begin with,” Johnson said.
Scicchitano is a reporter for the Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Daily Item.