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Court of Appeals Reverses Jury’s Verdict Because Judge Allowed Evidence of Defendant’s Drug Use

by Holliday Karatinos Law Firm, PLLC, posted in Florida Auto Accident, Florida Case Law
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A Florida court of appeals recently reversed a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff because the judge allowed the plaintiff to introduce prejudicial evidence of the defendant’s drug use to help the jury determine the damages that the plaintiff was owed.

Swanson v. Robles

In the case Swanson v. Robles, Robles was the personal representative of an estate created for a person killed in an accident. Robles filed a wrongful death action against Swanson claiming that Swanson was responsible for the accident and seeking compensatory damages for the loss of the decedent’s life.

The trial was to be split up into two phases. The first phase dealt with whether Swanson was responsible for the accident that caused the death of victim. The second phase would be held only if Swanson was found at fault, and would be used to determine the amount of the damages Swanson owed.

At the first phase of the trial, Swanson conceded that he was negligent and responsible for the accident and the subsequent death of the accident victim. Therefore, most of the case would be focused on the second phase of the trial; the damages phase. At a pre-trial motion, Swanson sought to keep evidence of his drug use out of the second phase of the trial. Apparently, Swanson was sleep deprived at the time of the accident, was a recovering heroin addict, was on methadone, and had marijuana in his blood. At the time of the accident, Swanson was on his was to a missed methadone appointment.

The trial judge denied Swanson’s motion to keep the evidence of drug use out of the second phase of the trial, accepting the argument that the accident victim’s family suffered increased pain and suffering knowing that the irresponsible behavior of Swanson was going to go unpunished.

Swanson then withdrew his request to have the trial split into two phases, and the trial proceeded as normal. The jury found Swanson liable for just under $5,000,000 in damages.

The Court of Appeals Reverses

The court of appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision allowing the evidence of drug use prior to the accident. The court noted that the only issue left at trial was the amount of damages. The fact that the defendant was on drugs at the time of the accident went only to the issue of whether he was at fault or not—a liability issue. Because the liability was conceded in the first phase of the trial (or would have been, had the trial judge prevented the evidence in the first place), the evidence had no place in the jury’s damages calculation.

The court of appeals used a rule of evidence that restricts some evidence that, while probative of a material fact, may be too prejudicial for the jury to consider. Thus, the court held that the evidence would have too prejudicial an effect and not all that probative of the issue of the pain and suffering of the accident’s family.

The Cases Affect of Florida Personal Injury Plaintiffs

This case has a detrimental affect on Florida personal injury plaintiffs because it prevents future plaintiffs from admitting evidence of a defendant’s drug use. However, the negative affect is limited because it will only come into play when a defendant conceded liability and requests a bifurcated trial.

Are You Considering Filing a Florida Accident Claim?

As you can see from the case above, a plaintiff can lose a case on appeal based on a complex evidentiary issue, even if the jury has returned a favorable verdict at trial. If you are considering bringing a Florida personal injury case, contact an experienced Florida personal injury attorney as soon as possible. The sooner you contact an attorney, the better your chances of success at trial. Click here, or call 866-597-0009 to schedule your free initial consultation today.

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