TAMPA — Police call it a tragedy, but was it also a crime?
Dozens of people have seizures while driving each year, causing collisions. When they end in death, authorities pull medical records and interview witnesses.
Sometimes a driver goes to jail. Sometimes charges aren't filed.
Police are still investigating whether Eric Dewayne McNeil, 42, suffered a seizure Friday when, they say, he lost consciousness, ran a red light and slammed into a minivan, killing a Tampa couple and injuring their 3-year-old granddaughter.
McNeil's sister says he has suffered occasional seizures for years and a medical issue of some sort prompted the state to monitor McNeil for three years, starting in 2007, and to temporarily revoke his license in 2008.
If he did suffer a seizure before the crash, prosecutors will likely ask two questions, said Tampa lawyer and public health professor Jay Wolfson: Was he aware of his medical issue? And was a seizure-caused crash foreseeable?
"If you know you have a problem that could reoccur, then you're knowingly placing people at risk," said Wolfson, who teaches at Stetson College of Law and the University of South Florida.
The classic "accident" situation is the unexpected heart attack while driving. But seizure cases can be more complicated.
Two years ago, a Seminole teen had a seizure behind the wheel. One minute Kyle Figler was driving out of a Wendy's parking lot. The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital. Police say he hit and killed a pedestrian.
He was never charged.
Seven years earlier, a Tampa man's doctor told him he shouldn't drive but the man got behind the wheel anyway. Emilio Santacruz had a seizure and careened into a South Tampa real estate office, killing an agent.
He was convicted of vehicular homicide was sentenced to six months in jail and 14 years of probation.
Why the vast difference?
Figler didn't have a long history of seizures, according to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Prosecutors confirmed only one previous seizure, which happened when Figler was booked in jail on a drug charge, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
And Figler had never been advised that he shouldn't drive, Bartlett said.
The teen's driving the night of March 12, 2009, up until he had the seizure, appeared normal according to his passenger, Bartlett said.
"From a criminal standpoint, you have to have a pretty well-documented history of seizures and an indication that he knew — or should have known — he shouldn't be running that motor vehicle," Bartlett said.
That's for criminal charges. It doesn't stop a civil lawsuit. The family of the pedestrian who was killed, Zachary Paul Baker of Largo, has filed a negligent death suit against Figler.
On the other hand, Santacruz had a documented history of seizures, according to Hillsborough County prosecutors. And a doctor had made it clear to him that he should not be driving.
Yet he got behind the wheel of a pickup on Oct. 18, 2002.
He had a seizure, crashed through the wall of Bob Hatton Prudential Realty in South Tampa and hit 79-year-old Angie Talty, killing her.
Santacruz was charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence and vehicular homicide. The manslaughter charge was dropped and he was sentenced to six months in jail for vehicular homicide.
In the end, each crash has to be approached individually, said Wolfson, the professor. One person's seizures might be completely different than another's — caused by different factors, helped by different medicines.
Sometimes prescriptions can control neurological issues, making it safe to drive. Sometimes a person who suffered seizures is cleared by a physician, he said.
It's unclear if any of this was at play in McNeil's case because his medical records are protected by privacy laws. He has been unreachable since the crash. His wife has declined comment.
"But the bottom line will be whether he had awareness and knowledge," Wolfson said. "You have to know that you're doing something."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.