On March 16, 2018, 18-year-old Caitlyn Potter and her best friend 19-year-old Kendra Cornwall were driving back from a trip to the coast to celebrate the life of their friend who had recently passed from suicide. While heading eastbound on Highway 26 between Tillamook and Washington counties, Potter lost control of the car. It slid sideways into westbound traffic, hitting one car and t-boning another.
Kendra Cornwall and a passenger in one of the struck cars, Tom Bonneville, were both pronounced dead at the scene. Five others sustained injuries, including two children and Caitlyn Potter.
At first, this appeared to be an accident. According to Caitlyn’s mother, Melinda Potter, a tire blew on Caitlyn’s 2002 Trailblazer, causing Caitlyn to lose control of the car. She also maintained that cell phones, speeding, or intoxicates were not factors in the crash. All eyes and sympathy were on Potter as she fought for her life, critically injured in a crash that killed her best friend.
Caitlyn Potter’s injuries were so extensive, doctors at OHSU weren’t sure whether she would make it or what condition she’d be in physically if she lived. She sustained a lot of internal organ damage, including a lacerated liver. She was internally decapitated, her spine disconnected from her skull. Miraculously, she wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down after surgeons repaired the spinal separation. While in the hospital, she fought infection and a partially collapsed lung. Needless to say, Oregonians were awed and relieved to hear that Caitlyn Potter lived and is doing better than her doctors could have expected. Unfortunately, this story takes a darker turn.
Police concluded in their investigation of the crash that it’s likely the teens in Caitlyn Potter’s vehicle were not wearing seatbelts, and she was probably speeding. They also concluded that Caitlyn was under the influence of intoxicants at the time of the crash, despite the statement from Melinda Potter.
Exactly 32,675 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014, but most of those crashes did not result in someone being charged with a crime. Obviously, an innocent accident resulting in a fatality is one thing. Negligence or bad choices resulting in that fatality is another. After giving her some time for recovery, criminal charges were brought against Caitlyn and a legal defense team brought in.
On August 9, was indicted on 18 charges:
- 2 counts of 1st degree manslaughter
- 2 counts of 2nd degree manslaughter
- 3 counts of 3rd degree DUII assault
- 3 counts of 4th degree assault
- 7 counts of recklessly endangering another person
- Reckless driving
A simple accident has turned into a criminal investigation. Although this is rare, it’s not unprecedented. DUI law is tricky. In the past, legal defense teams have highlighted the pain and trauma that the accused have endured in their criminal defense, arguing it’s enough of a punishment and lesson learned. In the case of someone as young as Caitlyn, who has such a harrowing story around this tragic crash, that may well be the strategy her legal defense team chooses. In any case, the community will be watching this tragic case closely to see the outcome.