California Appellate Court Wrong for Allowing Prejudicial Evidence of Crash Victim’s Marijuana Use

People on trial for civil wrongs like negligence are entitled to present a vigorous defense. This often includes attempting to shift some or all of the blame for to the injured person. However, the law, while allowing the accused to present a defense, prohibits using evidence that is more likely to instill a bias in the jurors than it is to prove or disprove the issues before the jury. One recent example is a California Court of Appeal case where the court threw out a jury verdict because the trial court allowed the defense to present evidence of the deceased victim’s marijuana use, even though there was no connection between the drug use and the accident that took the victim’s life.

The fateful incident giving rise to the case occurred when Randy Hernandez was driving on the freeway in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 28, 2010. Hernandez’s vehicle collided with one driven by Eric Lauderdale, leaving both vehicles disabled in the left lane. The men were standing near their vehicles when a sheriff’s deputy, who did not see the crashed vehicles, slammed into Lauderdale’s vehicle. The secondary accident sent Lauderdale over the five-foot-tall concrete barrier, but he suffered only a foot injury. Hernandez was killed.

Hernandez’s daughter sued Los Angeles County for negligence. At trial, the county introduced evidence that Hernandez had smoked marijuana and was possibly still under the influence when the accidents occurred. The county also claimed that Hernandez was responsible for the accident with Lauderdale. The jury deliberated and came back with a verdict finding the county 51% at fault, Lauderdale 35%, and Hernandez 14%.

Hernandez’s family appealed, arguing that the marijuana evidence was irrelevant and unfairly prejudiced the jury. The appeals court agreed. The evidence of the dead man’s marijuana use was inadmissible character evidence and far more prejudicial against him than it was likely to prove or disprove the issue of fault. In order to qualify as admissible proof, a piece of evidence must be relevant, meaning that it must tend to prove or disprove some essential aspect of the case. Even if it is relevant, it is still inadmissible if it will tend to unduly bias, confuse, or mislead the jury.

The experts in the case whom the county called to testify stated that they could not say that Hernandez was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the wreck or that his having smoked caused his death. One expert testified that the first wreck was the result of Lauderdale crashing into Hernandez’s vehicle. If the county’s own experts could not establish a connection of causation between Hernandez’s smoking marijuana and his death, the county had failed to establish that the man’s smoking was relevant, and the court should have excluded the evidence on that basis. While the accident reconstruction experts concluded that Hernandez would have survived if he’d stayed in his vehicle, no witness could connect marijuana to the man’s decision to exit the vehicle.

Even if the evidence had been relevant, the risk of prejudice was far higher than the evidentiary value. The county’s attorney even implied that Hernandez may not have had a genuine medical need for his marijuana and may have smoked for purely recreational purposes. This was clearly designed to impugn the dead man’s character and prejudice the jury against his side, and the trial court should have excluded it.

When you’ve been injured in an accident, a lot goes into successfully obtaining the compensation you deserve. One element is making sure that the information the jury uses to decide your case is limited to relevant evidence, and excludes irrelevant or prejudicial information the other side wants to use to shift the blame. For skilled advocacy on your behalf, consult the experienced Oakland injury law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury law attorneys can help you make sure the trial you receive is a fair one. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Trucker Potentially Liable for Teen Driver’s Injuries Due to Illegal Parking Stop, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 13, 2014

Trucker’s Improper Interstate Stop Results in Fiery Crash, $150M Wrongful Death Judgment, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Oct. 30, 2013

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