Evidence of Drug Use in Florida Wrongful Death Cases

Tragically, many car accident fatalities occur because of drug or alcohol intoxication. Under what circumstances does evidence of drug or alcohol intoxication stay out of a trial proceeding? A recent case illustrates how a defendant can keep evidence of intoxication from the jury by admitting liability.

The case arose when a city employee was standing at the rear of a city vehicle parked in a median area of the road, and was hit by a truck driver who crashed into him. The employee died immediately.

The deceased’s representative sued the other driver for wrongful death and asked the court for compensatory damages for the man’s widow and both compensatory and punitive damages for the estate. The final judgment against the other driver was more than $6 million. The other driver/defendant appealed.

The defendant asked the court to bifurcate the trial and his motion was granted. This means, the trial was to be divided into two phases instead of just one. The defendant’s reason for requesting a bifurcation was to make sure the prejudicial evidence of his drug use was not admitted in the first phase where the jury determined compensatory damages.

The trial court bifurcated the case. The first phase would deal with whether the plaintiff was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages and the second phase would consider the appropriate amount of punitive damages. However, the trial court would not agree to prevent evidence of drug use from coming into both phases of the case.

Just before trial, the defendant admitted his negligence was the sole proximate cause of what had happened. He admitted gross negligence and even agreed the plaintiff was entitled to punitive damages. On this basis, he again asked that evidence of drug use be excluded from the compensatory phase. He argued that because he conceded this point, the evidence no longer had any bearing on material factual issues in the compensatory phase.

The trial court disagreed, ruling that evidence of drug use would be admitted during the compensatory phase because the evidence was likely to increase the wife’s pain and suffering damages. Because of this ruling, the defendant agreed to the trial occurring in one phase.

The plaintiff offered the testimony of many witnesses to show the defendant’s drug use, including his use of Xanax, methadone, and a marijuana metabolite and his status as a recovering heroin addict. An expert testified for the plaintiff regarding the dangerous effects of multiple substances coupled with sleep deprivation. The defense expert testified that the same point was speculation. When the plaintiff testified, she testified that the death impacted her, but did not testify that the way her husband died had an effect on her.

The jury awarded more than $6 million. It also found that the defendant had been impaired by drugs and alcohol at the time of the death. The defendant appealed on the grounds that the trial court should not have permitted the evidence about his drug use.

The appellate court explained that evidence is inadmissible if it’s probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger it will prejudice the fact-finder. In this case, the defendant had admitted liability and only the amount of the damages was at issue. Therefore his defendant’s sobriety was no longer relevant.

The appellate further explained that the defendant’s misconduct was irrelevant to determining the wife’s pain and suffering. The only reason to admit the evidence in the compensatory damages phase was to inflame the jury. In light of the concessions made by the defendant, the appellate court reversed the trial court. It sent the case back to be tried in two phases, the first to deal with compensatory damages and the second to deal with punitive damages.

If a loved one is killed as a result of somebody else’s negligence, contact the experienced Florida wrongful death attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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