Friday, March 11, 2016

Pennsylvania Superior Court Decision on Sufficiency of Evidence To Corroborate and Render BAC Evidence Admissible [Non-Precedential]

In its recent non-precedential decision in the case of Coughlin v. Massaquoi, No. 3367 WDA 2014 (Pa. Super. 2016 Ford Elliot, P.J.E., Stapile, and Strassburger, J.J.) (Strassburger, J., concurring) (Mem. Op. by Ford Elliot, P.J.E.) the majority of the Superior Court concluded that the expert testimony presented at the trial below in this matter was sufficient corroborating evidence to permit the admission of the decedent’s BAC in a civil litigation matter.   

This matter involves a Plaintiff’s decedent, who was struck and killed by a motor vehicle while the decedent was crossing the street.   Evidence was presented in the  matter that the decedent was heavily intoxicated at the time of the accident.  

The trial court had denied the Plaintiff’s Pre-Trial Motion In Limine to exclude evidence of the decedent’s intoxication, including the toxicology report and the expert testimony of a toxicologist.   Ultimately, the jury determined that the Defendant’s negligence was not a factual cause of the Plaintiff’s decedent’s fatal injuries.  

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued, in part, that the trial court had erred in denying its Motion In Limine seeking to preclude evidence of the Plaintiff’s decedent’s post-mortem BAC of .313 when there was allegedly no additional independent cooperative evidence of intoxication.  The Plaintiff also asserted that the trial court erred in allowing the testimony of the Defendant’s toxicologist expert.  

The Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that the Plaintiff was arguing that the decedent’s BAC was inadmissible as a matter of law where there is no independent corroborated evidence of intoxication such as slurred speech, odor of alcohol, unsteady gait, etc.   Moreover, the Plaintiff asserted that there was no evidence as to the decedent’s whereabouts prior to the accident or any independent eyewitness testimony to support any inference that the decedent had been drinking and/or was heavily intoxicated prior to the accident.   The Plaintiff further asserted that the decedent’s BAC, in and of itself, was insufficient for the issue of intoxication to go to the jury.  In response to these contentions by the Plaintiff, the Pennsylvania Superior Court wrote, “We disagree.”   See Coughlin at p. 6.  

The Pennsylvania Superior Court stated its analysis by noting that the trial court judges enjoy a broad discretion regarding the admissibility of evidence.   The court also noted that it is well-settled law of this Commonwealth since 1927, under the case of Critzer v. Donovan, 289 Pa. 381, 137 A. 655 (1927), that, where recklessness or carelessness is at issue, proof of intoxication is relevant, but the mere fact of consuming alcohol is inadmissible as unfairly prejudicial, unless it reasonably establishes intoxication.  [Other citations omitted].  

The court noted that Pennsylvania law also provides that evidence of intoxication must reasonably establish a degree of intoxication with producing unfitness to drive or reckless or careless driving is the matter at issue in a case.  This rule was extended under Pennsylvania law regarding the admissibility of evidence tending to establish intoxication on the part of a pedestrian.  

With regard to pedestrians, evidence of intoxication is inadmissible unless it proves unfitness to be crossing the street.   Furthermore, the rule of law is that no reference should be made to a pedestrian’s use of alcohol unless there is evidence of excessive or copious drinking.  

The court also noted that, under Pennsylvania law, the theory behind allowing a blood alcohol level to be admitted into evidence of a civil case is that it is relevant circumstantial evidence relating to intoxication.   However, blood alcohol level alone may not be admitted for the purpose of proving intoxication.   Generally, there must be other evidence showing the actor’s conduct which suggests intoxication.  In such instance, and if other safe guards are present, the courts would allow the admission of blood alcohol level evidence.  See Coughlin at p. 8-9.  

In this matter, the defense toxicologist expert testified that an individual with a BAC greater than .31 would be unfit to cross the street safely.   The expert therefore testified that, with a BAC of .313, the decedent would have been unable to safely cross the street.   The court noted that, although there was no eyewitness testimony to corroborate the fact of the decedent’s intoxication, no evidence of slurred speech, staggered gait, etc., no witness who saw the decedent consume alcohol prior to the accident, and no witness who saw the decedent attempt to cross the street, the court stated that it has been held, under Pennsylvania law that the “other” evidence of intoxication necessary to render admissible the results of a blood alcohol test do not have to consist of third-party eyewitness testimony, but may consist of expert testimony describing the effects of a particular BAC level on a person.   See Coughlin at p. 11. [citations omitted].  

In the matter before it, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that the Defendant’s toxicologist’s expert testimony was sufficient corroborating evidence for the admission of the decedent’s BAC result.   As such, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the Plaintiff’s Motion In Limine or Post-Trial Motion for a New Trial.  

Anyone wishing to review this currently non-precedential Majority Opinion may click this LINK.
The non-precedential Concurring Opinion by Judge Strassburger can be viewed HERE 

I note that the handling defense attorney, Joseph Hudock of the Pittsburgh office of Summers McDonnell, Hudock & Guthrie noted his intention to petition the court to make this decision a published Opinion (and therefore precedential). 

UPDATEThis decision has since been published by the Pennsylvania Superior Court and is, therefore, precedential.

Commentary:  It is believed that this may be the first time that a Pennsylvania appellate court has ruled that the “other” evidence necessary to secure the admission of a blood alcohol content (BAC) reading before a jury can consist of merely testimony from an expert toxicologist.  

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