Appeals Court Upholds Verdict Declaring Truck Driver Not Liable for Man’s Death Despite Marijuana Use

A recent decision by the California Court of Appeal upheld a jury verdict in favor of a truck driver in a fatal accident. Even though the truck driver backed over a contractor, causing the contractor’s death, and the truck driver had smoked marijuana two days earlier, the contractor’s family’s wrongful death case failed anyway. In any negligence case, the plaintiff must prove causation, and, in this case, the dead man’s family was unable to persuade the jury that the truck driver’s marijuana use, not the contractor’s inattentiveness, caused the contractor’s death.

The lawsuit arose after the tragic death of Dan Toste. Toste, a general contractor on an asphalt project on State Route 135, was working when a construction truck driven by Paul Michaelson backed over him. After the accident, Michaelson voluntarily took a drug test, which revealed quantities of marijuana in his system. The truck driver admitted he had smoked two days before the incident in order to treat a headache. Toste’s son sued Michaelson, his employer, and the asphalt supplier on the project, asserting claims of negligence and wrongful death.

Before the trial started, Michaelson and his employer offered to settle for $200,000. Later, they raised the offer to $750,001. The Toste family rejected both offers. The case went to trial, and the jury decided that the companies were not negligent and that, although Michaelson was negligent, his negligence was “not a substantial factor in causing the death” of Toste. Having successfully defended their cases, the driver and the entities were entitled to recover costs and expert witness fees. Michaelson and his employer got $165,000, and the asphalt supplier got $42,000.

The Toste family appealed, arguing that the evidence brought forward at trial required a finding that not only was Michaelson negligent but also his negligence was a substantial cause of the deceased man’s fatal injuries. The appeals court upheld the lower court ruling, however. This case is a reminder of how challenging it can be to overturn a jury verdict on appeal. Appeals courts will uphold the decisions of trial court fact-finders if they are “supported by evidence that is of ponderable legal significance and reasonable in nature,” even if they are “against the weight of the evidence.”

The problem with the Toste family’s case came down to causation. There was proof that Michaelson had some amount of marijuana in his system. There was proof that Michaelson backed over Toste, fatally injuring him. What the family lacked, though, was proof that Michaelson’s marijuana use caused him to back over Toste. This element of causation is an essential criterion in any negligence case.

By implication, the jury in Michaelson’s case concluded that the truck driver was not impaired by marijuana, meaning that his use of the drug was not a substantial factor in causing the accident. The defense had presented evidence that a co-worker who spoke to Michaelson minutes before the accident saw no signs of impairment. Before the fatal accident, Michaelson had hauled and unloaded two loads of asphalt without any problems. A CHP officer and a safety manager for the asphalt supplier spoke to Michaelson minutes after the accident, and they also observed no signs of impairment. The defense also had evidence that Michaelson was not driving in a negligent manner when he struck Toste. Ultimately, the defense had ample evidence to allow the jury to made a “reasonable in nature” decision that the death occurred because Toste was standing in a blind spot in Michaelson’s mirrors and was inattentive to the man’s truck.

Wrongful death and personal injury cases can be complicated. It is not enough to have proof that you were injured and that someone committed an act of negligence. You also have to prove that the negligence caused your injury. An experienced personal injury attorney can provide invaluable assistance in assessing and presenting your case. The experienced Oakland wrongful death attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch have helped many families with fatal truck accident cases. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Insurer Not Liable in Bad Faith for Not Settling Claim Following Fatal Southern California Crash, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Dec. 15, 2015

Mom’s Financial Independence Blocks Effort to Sue Over Son’s Construction Accident Death, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Jan. 15, 2014

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