Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pennsylvania Superior Court: Intoxication Evidence Inadmissible Where Liability Conceded (And No Puntive Damages Claim Asserted)

In a February 15, 2011 decision of first impression in the case of Knowles v. Levan, 2011 WL 522784 (Pa.Super. Feb. 15,2011, Stevens, Shogan, and Mundy, JJ.)(Opinion by Shogan, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that evidence of a defendant's drug and alcohol use prior to a two-vehicle accident should not have been admitted where the defendant's estate conceded liability and the trial was only over the issue of the plaintiff's damages.

According to the Opinion, this matter arose out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on May 28, 2007 on Interstate 81 north in Dauphin County. At that time, the Defendant, who was fatally injured in the accident, entered the northbound lane of highway while traveling south and was then involved in a head-on collision with the Plaintiffs’ vehicle.

The Court emphasized in its Opinion that the Plaintiffs’ Complaint did not seek punitive damages.

Prior to trial, the defense conceded liability and negligence on the Defendant’s behalf and the case proceeded to trial in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on the issues of damages only.

The defense filed a pre-trial motion in limine to preclude testimony regarding the defendant's decedent's use of cocaine and alcohol prior to the accident.

The trial court denied the motion ruling that the evidence would be admissible to tell the plaintiff's story and illustrate how the accident occurred.

The jury was informed at trial of the defendant's decedent's consumption of cocaine and that her blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) was .227.

The trial court also instructed defense counsel to inform the jury that a person with a BAC over .08 exceeded the legal limit for driving, and further instructed that if defense counsel did not inform the jury of this fact, then the trial court would.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Mr. Knowles $250,000.00 in damages and awarded Mrs. Knowles $4,000.00 in damages.

The trial court denied the Defendant’s post-trial motions seeking a new trial on the basis that the trial erred in denying the pre-trial Motion In Limine.

On appeal, the Superior Court found that the trial court erred on the admissibility of evidence issue but felt that the error was harmless in light of the cautionary instructions given by the trial court judge and therefore allowed the verdict to stand.

In footnote 3 of its Opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that neither the litigants nor the Court’s own independent research revealed any binding precedent on the evidentiary issue presented and, therefore, the question of the admissibility of intoxication to illustrate how an accident occurred, in a case where negligence is conceded, appeared to the court to be an issue of first impression before the Superior Court.

As such the Knowles v. Levan decision stands for the proposition that where liability is conceded (and where no punitive damages claims are at issue), evidence of a defendant driver's intoxication at the time of an accident is not admissible.

I send thanks to Attorney Paul Oven of the Moosic, PA office of Dougherty, Leventhal & Price for bringing this case to my attention.

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