Injury Claimant’s Marijuana Use Excluded in Trial, $3.3M Damage Award Affirmed

A trucker deemed negligent in a trucking accident lost his appeal on a $3.3 million verdict favoring the driver of a minivan who suffered serious injuries in the crash. Part of that appeal was based on the assertion that trial court wrongly excluded evidence of plaintiff’s marijuana use prior to the crash. Defendant also argued against the medical necessity of future shoulder surgeries. The California appellate court affirmed.trucking accident

Although California was the first state to legalize marijuana as medicine (and one of a handful now to allow it for recreation), it’s not the only one now grappling with traffic-related issues involving marijuana – both in the civil and criminal courts. It is a much more complex issue than alcohol impairment of a driver because with marijuana (and many other drugs), traces are left in the system long after consumption. That means one may test positive for marijuana – even at a higher level – and not necessarily be impaired. One can have relatively high levels of marijuana in the blood and urine even if they have not consumed the drug within days or weeks – by which time the psychoactive effects would have worn off.

Therefore, determining when marijuana in the system is “active” versus “inactive” can be tricky. We are likely to see it play it an increasing number of personal injury cases here in Florida, now that the drug has been approved as a prescription for certain conditions. 

According to court records in this trucking accident case, the truck driver was operating a tractor hauling a flatbed trailer that was 45 feet long, carrying approximately 45,000 pounds of cement. At one point, he pulled over into a parking area to take a nap. When he woke, it was getting dark and he decided to continue traveling northbound. He turned on his lights, drove across the southbound lane and turned into the northbound lane. Meanwhile, plaintiff was driving a minivan in the southbound lane. The left front of the minivan crashed into the middle left side of the flatbed trailer. The impact occurred in the southbound lane. At the time, trucker was traveling 15 mph while minivan driver was traveling about 45 mph.

Plaintiff was seriously injured and could not be extricated from the vehicle for a full 45 minutes. He suffered an open fracture to his left shoulder, such that the bone was protruding.

At trial, jury found truck driver negligent (and his trucking company employer vicariously liable). They also found respondent was negligent, but did not find that negligence to be a substantial factor in the crash. Jurors awarded plaintiff $3.3 million, which included damages for future medical expenses for four shoulder surgeries.

Defendants appealed, arguing plaintiff’s marijuana use was wrongly excluded as evidence. Upon review, the appellate court noted that:

  • Plaintiff told emergency room staff he occasionally used marijuana, but had not done so in the last 36 hours prior to the crash;
  • A urine sample collected at the emergency room found marijuana, but not at a concentration level that could be clearly deemed “active” or “inactive”;
  • The lab results taken were noted specifically to be for medical purposes, with the express note that more specific chemical methods must be used in order to obtain and confirm an analytical result;
  • Numerous experts testified the level of drugs found in plaintiff’s system could not definitively be proven active or inactive;
  • Emergency room physician testified plaintiff showed no signs of intoxication.

Based on all this, trial court ruled there was inadequate foundation for the conclusion defense was trying to reach – specifically that plaintiff was negligent in causing the collision. Further, the court noted the defendants’ expert witness was reasoning backward from the fact that a crash occurred and therefore alleged impairment was to blame – despite there not being adequate proof of that. Appellate court agreed on this point, and also that there was adequate evidence that there was a reasonable degree of medical certainty that plaintiff would need all four future surgeries.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

David v. Hernandez, July 25, 2017, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six

More Blog Entries:

Impact of South Florida Motorcycle Accidents Lessened with Helmets, July 30, 2017, Fort Lauderdale Trucking Accident Lawyer Blog