Coughlin v. Massaquoi: No per se Requirement for Corroborating Evidence before BAC is admissible in a civil case
When is blood alcohol content (BAC) admissible in a civil case to prove negligence (including contributory negligence)? In the context of a car accident, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has previously held that “the word drinking . . . carries the inevitable connotation of considerable drinking,” Harvey v. Doliner, 399 Pa. 356 (1960), and that courts must be careful to weigh the prejudice resulting from such connotations against the relevance of the evidence under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 403. The Superior Court has taken this ruling to mean that BAC is only admissible in a civil negligence case where there is some other, independent evidence of intoxication as a threshold matter to support admissibility of the BAC.
On the night of January 13, 2012, Ummu Massaquoi was traveling southbound on Castor Avenue in northeast Philadelphia (home of the short-lived Liberty County Secessionist Movement) struck Thomas Coughlin, a pedestrian that Massaquoi did not see in an intersection and killed him. The autopsy revealed that Coughlin had a BAC of .313 (for comparison’s sake, with a BAC of .08, it is illegal to drive) and trace amounts of illegal substances in his system. There were no other witnesses to the accident, and no other evidence regarding Coughlin’s drinking or other actions that night.
Coughlin’s estate moved to preclude the admission of BAC on the idea that the introduction of this evidence would prejudice the jury against Coughlin. The trial court denied the motion, and Massaquoi was permitted to put on expert testimony about the effect that a BAC of .313 would have on coordination and judgment. The jury found Massaquoi negligent, but found that her negligence was not the proximate cause of Coughlin’s death.
Majority by Todd: BAC and expert testimony are relevant to contributory negligence of the plaintiff
Justice Debra Todd, writing for the majority, ruled that the admissibility of BAC in a civil case is analyzed just like any other piece of evidence. Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 402 asks if the evidence is relevant. If it is, then it is analyzed under rule 403: does its relevance outweigh any potential prejudice to the party against whom it is offered?
Considering this two-part analysis, the majority has no trouble ruling that a pedestrian’s blood alcohol level is directly relevant to whether he may have played a part in the negligence that brought about his death. But the word “drinking” carries a high risk of prejudice, as the Supreme Court held in Harvey, and so a trial court should only admit evidence of intoxication if it reasonably shows intoxication.
While recognizing that the mere introduction of BAC at a trial has the potential to confuse the jury, the Supreme Court rejected the standard of the Superior Court in requiring evidence from another source before admitting BAC. Rather, “the admissibility of BAC evidence is within the trial court’s discretion based upon general rules governing the admissibility of evidence and the court’s related assessment of whether the evidence establishes the pedestrian’s unfitness to cross the street.”
This latter term—the pedestrian’s unfitness to cross the street—is emphasized in the majority opinion. The Court uses this term as a sort of stand-in for the term “relevance.” In other words, proof of drinking, or proof that the pedestrian was a drunk, is prejudicial. Proof that his consumption of alcohol that evening may have made him stagger out into the street negligently is relevant. Where, as in the present case, an expert witness was offered to the jury to explain the effects of alcohol upon the pedestrian’s unfitness to cross the street, the Court found “the probative value of such evidence outweighs its potential for unfair prejudice.”
Concurrence by Donohue: The Majority Opinion should be read in light of the facts
Justice Christine Donohue concurs, writing however that the Court’s opinion “is not tethered to any discussion of the facts of this case,” and that the opinion should not be read broadly. Only where the facts support a finding of intoxication—and not merely where one could speculate from BAC as to the pedestrian’s intoxication—should the trial court admit the evidence.
Dissent by Mundy: Other Evidence of Intoxication Should be Required
Justice Sally Mundy briefly dissents, arguing that independent evidence of intoxication—an eyewitness who saw the pedestrian staggering, “or other evidence of his behavior or demeanor,” should be required before the admission of evidence as to intoxication. Admitting BAC level without solid evidence about what happened “in a poorly lit area at night” only “invites speculation on the part of the jury.”
Conclusion: BAC is just like everything else
The simplest takeaway from this case is that BAC evidence is just like any other kind of evidence in a civil negligence case. It can be admitted if it clears the hurdles of 402 and 403. Although the Court doesn’t explicitly say so here, where the BAC is high, it is more likely to be relevant. Where evidence exists to actual drunkenness, or where evidence shows the party’s response times were slowed, admission of BAC is a virtual lock. And where there is no corroborating evidence, the party seeking admission is not without hope.
The odd part of the majority’s opinion is called out in both the concurrence and the dissent (see footnote 3 of Mundy’s dissent, for example). The majority relies on the expert’s opinion to bolster their conclusion. But why should a jury be less confused just because an expert testified? The underlying evidence challenged was the basis for the expert’s testimony.
Regardless, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ruling in Coughlin v. Massaquoi clearly puts BAC evidence on part with other types of evidence, and its admissibility rests in the sound discretion of the trial court.