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Charles Watts, and Sharon Watts v. Eric Hollock

December 5, 2011

CHARLES WATTS, AND SHARON WATTS, PLAINTIFFS
v.
ERIC HOLLOCK, AND AYERS TOWING SERVICE, INC. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court are motions in limine filed by Plaintiffs Charles and Sharon Watts and Defendants Eric Hollock and Ayers Towing Service, Inc. in advance of the trial scheduled for February 28, 2012. The court has already issued an order disposing of the motions. (See Doc. 84). This memorandum explains the court's reasoning.

Background

This case arises out of an accident that occurred on October 1, 2008. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 5). On that day, Defendant Eric Hollock (hereinafter "Hollock") drove a flatbed trailer up a winding access road along Penobscot Mountain. (Id. ¶¶ 9-13). Hollock was hauling a 40,000-pound hoist to the top of the mountain. (Id.) The truck skid and became ensnared in the mud on the access road. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Plaintiff Charles Watts (hereinafter "Watts") was part of a crew of men sent to assist Hollock in freeing the stranded truck. (Id. ¶ 20).

As part of their plan to free the truck, the crew decided to attach a bulldozer to the front of the tractor-trailer and drag it from a jackknifed position to safety. (Id. ¶ 25). They also attached a forklift to the trailer to pull it away from the cliff as the bulldozer pulled the tractor forward. (Id.) Hollock was to sit in the truck's driver's seat to steer as the bulldozer and forklift pulled the trailer around. (Id. ¶ 28). He was not to place the truck in gear or attempt to accelerate the truck until the forklift and bulldozer had been detached. (Id. ¶ 27). Watts's job during this operation was to stand near the forklift as a spotter. (Id. ¶ 29). This operation put the truck in motion, but Hollock allegedly did not follow his assigned role. (Id. ¶ 30). Instead of waiting for the bulldozer and forklift to be detached from his truck, plaintiffs claim Hollock engaged the transmission and started to drive the truck forward. (Id.) When the truck gained traction the line attached to the bulldozer became slack, which caused the forklift to tip over and fall on top of Watts, causing "severe, permanent and catastrophic injuries." (Id. ¶ 31).

After plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Hollock and Ayers Towing Service, Hollock's employer, and served the complaint, the parties engaged in discovery. At the close of discovery, and in anticipation of a trial, both parties filed motions in limine and defendants filed a motion to bifurcate the trial. The court issued an order disposing of these motions. (Doc. 84). This memorandum explains the courts reasoning with respect to this order.

Jurisdiction

The court has jurisdiction pursuant to the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiffs are residents of Texas. (Doc 1, Compl. ¶ 1). Defendant Eric Hollock is a citizen of Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 2). Defendant Ayers Towing Services is a Pennsylvania corporation with a principal place of business in Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 3). Because complete diversity of citizenship exists between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00, the court has jurisdiction over the case. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Because we are sitting in diversity, the substantive law of Pennsylvania shall apply to the instant case. Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)).

Discussion

Plaintiffs filed four motions in limine. Defendants filed three motions in limine and a motion to bifurcate the trial. We will discuss all of the motions in turn beginning with plaintiffs' motions.

1. Plaintiffs' motion to preclude all reference to or evidence regarding use of marijuana/opiates before October 1, 2008 and the exclusion of all drug screen testing (Doc. 34)

Discovery revealed that Watts smoked marijuana on the night before the accident. When Watts arrived in the hospital after the accident, doctors ordered diagnostic studies, and those studies revealed the presence of opiates--specifically morphine--and THC, the chemical found in marijuana. At his deposition, Watts admitted he smoked marijuana the night before the incident, shortly before falling asleep sometime before midnight. No evidence indicates that Watts had behaved in an incoherent or disoriented manner before the accident on October 1, 2008. No eyewitnesses indicate that Watts appeared impaired by marijuana.*fn1

Plaintiffs argue that any reference to Watts's marijuana use on the night before the accident and any test results that show the presence of marijuana or opiates in his bloodstream should be precluded. They contend that evidence of prior drug use is irrelevant under Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402 because neither evidence that Watts smoked marijuana on the day of the accident nor evidence of impairment exists. Plaintiffs further contend that, even if such evidence is relevant, its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect and should be precluded by Federal Rule of Evidence 403.

Defendants argue that the issues of Watts's perception of the accident and his reaction time--which could have been impaired as a result of drug use--are relevant to the facts at issue in this case. Defendants do not offer any evidence to indicate, however, that Watts displayed evidence of intoxication. Although evidence of prior drug use is somewhat relevant, the court agrees with plaintiffs that the probative value of the evidence is outweighed by its substantial prejudicial effect; as such the court granted this motion in limine.

The Federal Rules of Evidence deem evidence relevant if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." FED. R. EVID. 401. Unless it is otherwise excluded by a rule of evidence, relevant evidence is admissible. FED. R. EVID. 402. However, relevant evidence may be excluded by a district court "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . ." FED. R. EVID. 403.

With respect to the admissibility of test results that demonstrate the use of intoxicants in cases involving accidents, Pennsylvania courts have held that "'[t]he well-settled law of this Commonwealth is 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.'" Locke v. Claypool, 627 A.2d 801, 803 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993) (quoting Whyte v. Robinson, 617 A.2d 380, 383 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992)); see also Critzer v. Donovan, 137 A. 665, 666 (Pa. 1927) (precluding testimony that a driver's breath smelled of alcohol after an accident because "[t]here was no allegation or proof of intoxication, nor was there any evidence of conduct or appearance from which a reasonable inference could be drawn that the man was intoxicated"). Courts have come to this conclusion because "while proof of intoxication is relevant where reckless or careless driving of an automobile is the matter at issue, the mere fact of drinking intoxicating liquor is not admissible, being unfairly prejudicial, unless it reasonably establishes a degree of intoxication which proves unfitness to drive." Fisher v. Dye, 125 A.2d 472, 476 (Pa. 1956) (citing Balla v. Sladek, 112 A.2d 156, 160 (Pa. 1955); Landy v. Rosenstein, 188 A. 855, 858-59 (Pa. 1937); Critzer, 137 A. at 666).

Pennsylvania courts have applied the same rule discussed above to the consumption of marijuana: "where it cannot be established that the use of marijuana rendered a driver unfit to drive or impaired his or her ability to drive safely, the use of marijuana is inadmissible to prove recklessness or carelessness." Hawthorne v. Dravo Corp. Keystone Div., 508 A.2d 298, 303 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986). The standards articulated in these Pennsylvania cases, based as they are on weighing the balance between relevance and prejudice, apply in federal court and enlighten our Rule 403 analysis. Rovegno v. Geppert Bros., Inc., 677 F.2d 327, 329 (3d Cir. 1982).

The court granted plaintiffs' motion as the unfair prejudice of the drug test results substantially outweigh any probative value in the absence of some corroborative evidence. While Watts admitted that he smoked marijuana on the night before the accident, discovery unearthed no evidence that he smoked marijuana on that day. More importantly, defendants offer no testimony or other evidence that indicates Watts's prior drug consumption impaired him. Thus defendants present no supporting evidence that would permit admission of the evidence of marijuana consumption, either in the form of testimony or test results. See Locke, 627 A.2d at 803-4.

This case is similar to Pennington v. King, No. 07-4016, 2009 WL 415718 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2009). In King, the plaintiffs sued the operator of a tractor trailer whose vehicle collided with the decedent's SUV. Id. at *1. They alleged that the defendant operated his vehicle while under the influence of marijuana, and was thus liable for negligence, recklessness and punitive damages. Id. The defendant spoke with law enforcement officials and an eyewitness after the accident, and no witnesses reported that the defendant exhibited any signs of intoxication or impairment. Id. at *3. Plaintiffs, however, produced the report of a toxicology expert who concluded that if the defendant showed signs of impairment while driving, his smoking of marijuana could be blamed for that impairment. Id. at *2. The court found plaintiffs had not produced sufficient evidence of intoxication because, in Pennsylvania, "for evidence of elevated blood alcohol to be admissible, it must be supplemented by other evidence of intoxicated behavior." Id. at *4 (citing Rovegno, 677 F.2d at 330). The only evidence of intoxication were "the results of the toxicology screen and [defendant's] admission that he smoked marijuana on the Saturday evening prior to this Monday morning accident." Id. at *6. While the defendant had been speeding and drove in an otherwise "erratic" fashion, that evidence was not sufficient "to introduce evidence of Mr. King's marijuana use at trial." Id. The court also rejected the expert report provided by plaintiffs, finding it "weak, speculative, and replete with qualifiers." Id. The report did "not assist Plaintiffs in their attempt to offer 'other evidence' of impairment." Id. The court therefore refused to consider defendant's prior marijuana use "and his alleged resulting impairment." Id.

Similarly, in the instant case, the probative value of Watts's drug screens is substantially outweighed by the prejudicial effect of admitting such evidence without any other evidence of intoxicated behavior. Therefore, Federal Rule of Evidence ...


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