When is Evidence of Intoxication Admissible in Auto Cases?

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently provided additional guidance for when evidence of a driver’s intoxication may be admitted into evidence.  In Partlow v. Gray, No. 2017 Pa. Super. 187 (Pa. Super. June 15, 2017) the defendant driver sought to exclude evidence of alcohol consumption and intoxication at trial.  The trial court allowed the intoxication evidence and an appeal was filed.  The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s rulings permitting evidence of alcohol consumption and intoxication on the basis that said evidence went beyond a “mere hint” of intoxication since it was adequately supported by substantial corroborating evidence.

The underlying case was tried in Philadelphia County and involved a fatal accident between a vehicle making a left hand turn that collided with a motorcycle. Following the accident, a police officer observed defendant to be lethargic with bloodshot and watery eyes.  Defendant denied  consuming alcohol at any point on the day of the accident.  Two hours after the accident, defendant’s blood alcohol content (“BAC”) was measured at 0.073%.  At trial, plaintiff had an expert opine that defendant’s BAC at the time of the accident would have been .104%. The expert testified that at .104% the defendant “was impaired at the time of the crash, including … delayed reaction times, vision, sedation, all of those things, and that he was intoxicated by alcohol at the time of the crash.”  The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $3.1 million.

On appeal, defendant challenged the admission of the intoxication evidence on the basis that it was not: 1) relevant to the negligence determination; and 2) to the extent is was relevant, its probative value was out weighed by its prejudicial effect because the claim for punitive damages was dismissed by the court; and 3) there was insufficient and inadequate corroborating evidence of alcohol consumption and intoxication.

Even though the punitive damages claims were dismissed by the trial court, the Superior Court found that the intoxication evidence remained relevant since defendant asserted a comparative negligent theory against plaintiff.  The Court then took note of its prior decision rendered in Rohe v. Vinson, 2016 Pa. Super. 305 (December 28, 2016), where it was announced that evidence of a drivers’ consumption of alcohol to prove intoxication, without more, would be unfairly prejudicial.  In distinguishing Rohe, the Partlow Court found that plaintiff had presented substantial corroborating evidence of intoxication and unfitness to drive such as consumption of alcohol prior to the accident, a driver’s BAC test results, expert testimony interpreting those results, and testimony about the driver’s physical condition shortly after the accident.  As to observations of a drivers’ physical condition, the Court noted that observations of “staggering, stumbling, aimless wandering, glassy eyes or incoherent mumbling”, while not exhaustive, are elements that could satisfy the corroborating evidence requirement.

The Partlow Court ultimately determined that plaintiff’s corroborating evidence was sufficient enough to take it beyond the tenuous, “mere hint” of intoxication evidence which should have been excluded in Rohe on the basis of unfair prejudice.  It appears that the Court will require at least a three prong set of proof – evidence of the driver’s physical condition shortly after the accident; evidence of the drivers’ BAC; and expert testimony relating the driver’s BAC result with respect to unfitness to drive – to avoid preclusion of intoxication evidence at trial.

Matthew C. Wilson

Office: King of Prussia
Phone: (610) 977-2975
Email: mwilson@forryullman.com
Practice Areas: Construction Litigation, Commercial Litigation, General Liability, Nursing Home Defense, Premises Liability, Products Liability, Third Party