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Court tosses verdict on distracted driver who crashed into Amish buggy, killing horse

In what judges called a clash between different centuries, the Kansas Court of Appeals has overturned felony convictions for a woman who rear-ended an Amish buggy, killing a horse and injuring two boys, while she apparently was driving distracted by her cell phone.

“On a summer day on a straight and level highway in Dickinson County, the 21st century collided with the 19th century with near-tragic consequences,” the court ruling said.

According to court records, driver Bridgette Warnke rear-ended a trailer towed by a two-wheel horse-drawn Amish buggy called a “forecart.”

It was driven by Mennonite Amish brothers Malachi and Micah Hamilton, ages 13 and 15.

The boys had borrowed the trailer to move some hay to their family farm and were returning it empty when the crash occurred on the K-43 highway near Enterprise, a small town about five miles east of Abilene.

The boys testified that they were driving the buggy in the traffic lane because it’s easier on their horses.

Warnke, who was in a hurry to pick up her child after work, was either on the phone or had just hung up on a conversation with the babysitter when the crash occurred.

“While Malachi was driving the team, Micah heard something behind them and turned to see a quickly approaching car,” the court ruling said. “Micah did not see the car slow down, and there was no oncoming southbound traffic on K-43. He did not have a chance to warn Malachi about the approaching car before it struck the hay trailer. The collision resulted in the boys being thrown from the buggy and injured and one of the horses being killed.”

Micah hit his head and was knocked out in the crash and Malachi suffered a broken leg. The second horse of the two-horse team came unhitched from the buggy and ran away, the ruling said.

A trial court convicted Warnke on two felony counts of reckless aggravated battery and a misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property. She was sentenced to probation and 15 weekends in jail, with an underlying sentence of 16 months in state prison.

But the appeals court overturned the verdicts, saying that prosecutors had failed to prove the gross negligence needed to support the charges.

“Speaking on a cell phone while driving is not a violation of our traffic laws, the ruling said. “Distracted driving caused by speaking on a cell phone may constitute negligence but in and of itself it does not constitute a gross deviation from the standard of care so as to support a criminal conviction for reckless aggravated battery.

“While it is apparent that the collision was caused by Warnke’s negligence, we conclude that her conduct was not criminal in nature. Accordingly, we reverse Warnke’s criminal convictions.”

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.