Could COVID-19 have caused a 97 mph crash that killed a retired Millard Public Schools teacher?
An attorney for driver Gerard Skutnik, 55, said Skutnik believed he was suffering from the coronavirus and blacked out on 144th Street on his way to get tested on Nov. 29. Skutnik drove his Toyota Tundra truck 96.9 mph and caused a collision that killed a retired teacher who had been stopped at a red light at 144th Street and Eldorado Drive, according to a police affidavit.
Omaha attorney Glenn Shapiro said he wants to gather more information but speculated as to whether brain fog or respiratory distress may have caused his client to drive more than twice the 45 mph speed limit and ram into three cars that were stopped at the light.
A 2019 Chevy Malibu driven by Patricia Brinkman was pushed into another car, and then Skutnik’s Tundra hit a fourth car. Brinkman, 78, a retired Millard Public Schools teacher, died at the scene.
Prosecutors are skeptical that a medical episode caused Skutnik to drive that fast.
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Citing the outrageous speed and failure to stop, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine charged Skutnik this week with felony motor vehicle homicide.
Skutnik had neither drugs nor alcohol in his system, authorities say. The absence of those factors typically leads to a misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide charge, punishable by up to a year in jail.
But Kleine said driving more than double the speed limit and crashing into cars stopped at a red light amounts to reckless driving and therefore felony motor vehicle homicide. Such a conviction could carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
“It’s a totality of the circumstances,” Kleine said. “We have a situation where you’re going that fast and you hit a car from behind that’s just sitting there. It’s more than just neglect; it’s obviously a total disregard for the safety of anyone on the road.”
Some judges, attorneys, even prosecutors have suggested that speed isn’t enough to prove recklessness. But Shapiro said he knows why prosecutors charged Skutnik with felony motor vehicle homicide.
“I understand why they filed it that way,” Shapiro said. “At first blush, I could see why someone would think it’s willful reckless driving.”
That Monday morning after Thanksgiving, Shapiro said, Skutnik had gone to buy a Christmas tree from either the Home Depot or Lowe’s store near 144th Street and West Maple Road. As he headed south on 144th Street, Shapiro said, Skutnik blacked out and couldn’t remember anything “after a certain point.”
At 10:49 a.m., Skutnik’s Tundra rammed into Brinkman’s Malibu, which was stopped behind another car at the light. Skutnik hit Brinkman with such force that it pushed her car and the car in front of her into the intersection. Skutnik’s Tundra also hit a BMW and spun several times before coming to rest in the grass beyond the intersection.
Shapiro said brain fog or respiratory distress, brought on by COVID-19, could have caused the blackout — and could have caused him to continue barreling 97 mph through the stoplight at Eldorado Drive.
Others were wary of that explanation. Someone who passes out typically drifts across lanes, over medians or over curbs, a law enforcement official said. Skutnik maintained his lane even as his speed increased.
Upon arrival at the hospital for a broken wrist sustained in the crash, Shapiro said Skutnik warned nurses that he believed he had COVID-19. Shapiro said he has not found out whether Skutnik tested positive for the virus.
Shapiro said such medical distress — no different from a stroke or heart attack — could mean that Skutnik was merely negligent in his driving, not reckless. Negligence equates to a misdemeanor.
Told of the COVID-19 defense, Kleine said: “I’ve never heard of that one as an excuse for driving almost 100 mph. It’s unique. Obviously we’re skeptical of that.”
Shapiro said Skutnik has a “spotless driving record” as an over-the-road trucker. He had a drunken driving conviction in 1983 but little record since.
Shapiro said he has no indication that Skutnik was suicidal. He pointed out that Skutnik had just purchased a Christmas tree and was hauling it in his truck.
Brinkman was a well-known and admired teacher in the Millard Public Schools, teaching at Cottonwood and Cody Elementary Schools and Kiewit Middle School. An avid Creighton Bluejays fan and frequent Douglas County election worker, she was chosen woman of the year in 2021 by the local chapter of her sorority, Beta Sigma Phi.
Shapiro said Skutnik showed “extreme remorse” and was moved to tears over Brinkman’s death when Shapiro visited him in the Douglas County Jail over the weekend.
“He sounds like a real good guy who had a bad day,” Shapiro said. “We’ll see what the explanations are for that bad day.”