Supreme Court Allows Blood Alcohol Evidence Without Independent Corroborating Evidence Of Intoxication

On September 28, 2017, in the Estate of Thomas Coughlin v. Massaquoi, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declined to adopt a bright-line rule for the admissibility of a BAC based upon the existence of independent corroborating evidence. Instead, the Court held that the admissibility of a BAC is within the discretion of the trial court based upon Rules of Evidence, PA.R.E.  401-403.

The case involves a pedestrian fatality in which the plaintiff-pedestrian was crossing the street and was struck by a motor vehicle. The pedestrian was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead.  The pedestrian’s BAC was .313.  The pedestrian’s whereabouts were unknown prior to the accident and there were no witnesses that observed the pedestrian’s behavior earlier that evening. The police report did not indicate the pedestrian was intoxicated or that the intoxication was a factor in causing the accident.

At trial, the trial court admitted the testimony of a toxicologist who opined that the pedestrian would have been severely intoxicated and would have demonstrated poor judgment and self-control and could not safely cross the street. The jury found the defendant negligent, but found the negligence was not a factual cause of the pedestrian’s death.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the toxicologist’s opinion was only admissible if there was accompanying evidence of intoxication. The trial court disagreed and held that the testimony of the toxicologist provided sufficient “other evidence” as the testimony demonstrated that someone with the same BAC would have been “more likely to engage in risky behavior like crossing the street while a car is coming.” The trial court further emphasized that the pedestrian’s BAC was nearly four times as high as the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle which would, at the very least, reduce the amount of additional evidence needed to establish that the BAC would have rendered him unfit to cross the street.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized the inherent prejudice in allowing the admissibility of a person’s consumption of alcohol, but held that evidence of the consumption of alcohol is admissible if the evidence reasonably shows intoxication.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in reaching its decision reviewed the current state of the law from both the Superior Court and Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In particular, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to follow the Superior Court’s decision in Ackerman v. Delcomico, 486 A.2d. 410 (Pa. Super. 1984) and its progeny, that required a heightened evidentiary requirement for the admissibility of BAC evidence.

The Supreme Court emphasized, however, that a pedestrian’s BAC alone may be insufficient to prove unfitness to cross the street, but here the expert testified thoroughly about the effects of a given BAC on an individual’s behavior and mental processes and specifically opined about a particular BAC and its effect on the pedestrian’s ability to cross the street.

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G. Christopher Parrish

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