Pennsylvania’s Relaxed Standard for Proving Intoxication in Civil Cases
Defense Digest, Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2018
By John F. Deasy, Esq.*
In personal injury cases, there is frequently evidence that the plaintiff or the defendant consumed alcohol before the accident or incident that forms the basis of a suit. Use of alcohol by the plaintiff or the defendant calls into question whether or not the incident was caused by intoxication. Evidence of intoxication can come from multiple sources, such as observations of the actor’s conduct by eyewitnesses or police officers, the actor’s behavior, and statements regarding alcohol usage and blood alcohol content (BAC) testing. Sometimes, the only evidence of intoxication is the BAC level obtained after the accident. Pennsylvania recently relaxed the standards for the introduction of an actor’s BAC level in civil cases. Recent case law provides a framework and guide for the admission of BAC levels in civil suits. Where there is BAC evidence in a case and admission of this evidence is important to your case, the use of a toxicologist expert is highly recommended.
In Coughlin v. Massaquoi, 170 A.3d 399 (Pa. 2017), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took the opportunity to revisit the admissibility of BAC evidence in civil cases. Coughlin involved a pedestrian/vehicle accident that occurred in Philadelphia. The accident happened at night while Massaquoi was driving on a four-lane road and struck Coughlin, a pedestrian. The defendant admitted that she did not see Coughlin prior to the impact. Coughlin died as a result of the accident. An autopsy revealed Coughlin had a BAC level of .313 percent.
Coughlin’s mother filed suit. Massaquoi had an expert toxicologist who opined that the average person with a BAC of .313 percent would be severely intoxicated and would demonstrate poor muscular and body coordination, slow and unsteady hand movements, poor hand-to-eye and foot-to-eye coordination, and a significant deterioration in judgment and self control, making it likely the person would engage in risky behavior. The expert further opined that an individual with a BAC of .313 percent could not safely cross the street without endangering his life or well being, noting that under the influence of alcohol at that level, he should not be driving and taking chances walking as a pedestrian. There was no other evidence beyond the BAC and the expert’s analysis of the BAC regarding Coughlin’s intoxication. There was no evidence as to where Coughlin was prior to the accident or witnesses who observed his condition or behavior prior to the accident. Additionally, the police report did not indicate that he appeared intoxicated.
Mrs. Coughlin filed a motion in limine to preclude the expert toxicologist, arguing the Superior Court opinion in Ackerman v. Delcomico, 486 A.2d 410 (Pa.Super. 1984), and its progeny stood for the proposition that blood alcohol level alone could not be admitted for the purpose of proving intoxication. There must be other evidence showing that the actor was intoxicated. Ackerman was the law of the land in intoxication cases, requiring independent evidence of intoxication beyond the BAC and expert toxicologist testimony in order to have the BAC level admitted for the purpose of proving intoxication.
However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Coughlin took the opportunity to reject the Ackerman standard. In doing so, the Supreme Court noted that admissibility of evidence is within the trial court’s discretion based upon the court’s assessment of whether the evidence is relevant and whether its probative value outweighs its potential to cause unfair prejudice. The Coughlin court stated that evidence of alcohol consumption is admissible in cases were careless or reckless driving is at issue and will not be viewed as “unfairly prejudicial” so long as it reasonably establishes a degree of intoxication or, as in the Coughlin situation, unfitness to walk across the street. The court turned the focus on evidence of intoxication that shows unfitness for driving. The court found that BAC level is admissible where an expert testifies thoroughly regarding the effects that a given BAC has on an individual’s behavior and mental processes, and where that expert specifically opines that a particular BAC would render a pedestrian unfit to cross the street. Accordingly, the framework provided by Coughlin is an expert who can provide opinions on:
1. The effect a given BAC has on an individual’s behavior and processes; and
2. How a particular BAC would render the person unfit to perform an activity, such as walking or driving.
Three appellate courts have followed the Coughlin opinion and have applied it to two premises liability cases. In the first premises liability case, Coughlin was applied in a situation where there was a very low BAC. In Minor v. Shaffer’s Ultra Bright Carpet Cleaning, 2018 Pa.Super. Unpub.LEXIS 770 (Pa.Super. Mar. 15, 2018), the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order permitting evidence of the plaintiff’s alcohol consumption. Mr. Minor had fallen down two or three steps outside an apartment building when he tripped and fell over a hose used by the defendant’s employee. The plaintiff was taken to a local hospital where blood was drawn, indicating a relatively low BAC level of .07 percent. The plaintiff admitted to consuming “less than a beer.” The defense expert testified the alcohol reading was obtained two-and-one-half hours after the fall. The expert was able to calculate that, at the time of the fall, the plaintiff’s BAC was between .106 percent and .121 percent. The expert then went on to address the physical and mental impairments associated with alcohol intoxication, opining that negotiating a hose on the steps requires significant mental and physical prowess and that alcohol impairs motor, physical and mental skills by its direct affect on the brain, rendering information slow or less efficient. Furthermore, alcohol impairs and affects one’s ability to make rational judgments, avoid obvious dangers, and perform motor, visual and mental tasks in a normal manner. The Superior Court upheld the admission of the toxicologist expert’s testimony and the admission of alcohol evidence.
In the second premises liability case, Solo v. Polit, 181 A.3d 392 (Pa.Super. 2017), the Superior Court, relying on Coughlin, affirmed the trial court’s decision that had denied a motion in limine to preclude evidence of the blood alcohol level. Solo was a tenant who had fallen off a porch and sued his landlord. The fall occurred at 2:00 a.m., and the plaintiff was taken to a local emergency room where blood was drawn and he was found to have a BAC of .244 percent. There was no other evidence that Solo was intoxicated. At trial, the landlord used an expert to testify that a BAC of .244 percent would cause a person to have poor reflexes, lack of coordination and a poor memory. Furthermore, at that level, the intoxication would affect all aspects of functioning, including the ability to walk. The Superior Court, in affirming the decision to deny the motion in limine, concluded that, pursuant to Coughlin, the evidence of the plaintiff’s BAC was properly admitted.
In Knecht v. Balanescu, U.S.Dist.LEXIS 178874 (M.D.Pa. Oct. 30, 2017), the trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion in limine to exclude evidence of the plaintiff’s intoxication in an auto accident based on Coughlin. In Knecht, the defendant retained a toxicologist expert who had described the effects a given BAC level has on an individual. Furthermore, due to uncertainty in the chain of events of the accident, the defense liability expert considered three alternatives to determine the particular BAC level at the time of the accident, noting the stages of effects the plaintiff would experience during each. Based on the levels calculated, the expert then opined specifically that Knecht was unfit to drive. The court ruled that the defense expert met the standards outlined in Coughlin. Knecht stands for the proposition that, even without a definite BAC at the time of the accident, an expert can analyze a range of BACs and offer an opinion as to the effects of alcohol at each level and, specifically, on the actor’s fitness to perform or drive.
In cases going forward, in order for BAC evidence to be admitted, one will need an expert who is able to testify as to the effects of alcohol generally and specifically how it affects the actor’s fitness for driving or walking. If one is trying to keep out evidence of intoxication, one will need to be able to argue that the other side’s evidence does not meet the requirements of Coughlin.
*John is a shareholder in our Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 412.803.1153 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense Digest, Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2018. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2018 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact email@example.com.