Pennsylvania Superior Court Reaffirms "Other" Evidence of Intoxication May Consist of Expert Testimony Describing Effects of Particular BAC Level

04.05.16

In a recent published opinion by President Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliott, the Superior Court reaffirmed Pennsylvania precedent that "other" evidence of intoxication "necessary to render admissible the results of a blood alcohol test" may consist of not only eyewitness testimony of the purportedly intoxicated individual's condition before the accident, but also "expert testimony describing the effects of a particular BAC level on the average person."

In Coughlin v. Massaquoi, 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 181 (Pa. Super. Ct. Mar. 21, 2016), Thomas Coughlin was killed while walking across the street. Coughlin was struck by a car operated by the defendant, who admitted at trial to never seeing Coughlin at any time before the impact occurred. There were no eyewitnesses to the tragic accident, and no witnesses who, before the accident, observed Coughlin's condition or Coughlin displaying any signs of intoxication. Coughlin was pronounced dead shortly after the accident and his body was transported to the Office of the Medical Examiner where a complete autopsy, including drug and alcohol screens, was performed.

The defendant retained an expert toxicologist, Richard Saferstein, Ph.D., who testified at trial that Coughlin's blood alcohol level (BAC) of .313 ("four times the legal level of driving in Pennsylvania") would have rendered him unfit to safely walk across the street at night. The trial court denied the plaintiff's pre-trial motion in limine to exclude evidence of Coughlin's intoxication, including the toxicology report and the expert testimony of Dr. Saferstein. After a three-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the defendant negligent, but that her negligence was not the factual cause of Coughlin's death.

The issue on appeal was whether Dr. Saferstein's expert testimony was sufficient corroborating evidence for admission of Coughlin's BAC. In her opinion affirming the judgment entered against the plaintiff, President Judge Ford Elliott held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiff's motion in limine. She observed "there [was] no eyewitness testimony to corroborate the fact of [ ] Coughlin's intoxication, e.g., slurred speech, staggered gait," and the fact "[n]o one saw [ ] Coughlin try to cross the street...[or] consume any alcohol." However, President Judge Ford Elliott stated Pennsylvania courts "have held that the 'other' evidence of intoxication necessary to render admissible the results of a [BAC] test does not have to consist of third-party eyewitness testimony, as [the plaintiff] suggest[ed], but may consist of expert testimony describing the effects of a particular BAC level on the average person."

Comment: In defending lawsuits involving a person who was intoxicated at the time of the accident, evidence of that person's BAC, alone, is not enough to submit the issue to a jury. In Pennsylvania, a defendant must provide additional corroborating evidence of the plaintiff's intoxication, such as eyewitness testimony of the person's condition before the accident. However, as the Superior Court in Coughlin reaffirmed, the expert testimony from a qualified toxicologist should be considered especially when no eyewitness testimony is available. 

Media Contacts

Sara L. De Long
267.295.3377
sdelong@wglaw.com

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