Supreme Court rules evidence of pedestrian's intoxication relevant in collision case

By Chandra Lye | Oct 5, 2017

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a trial court’s decision to permit evidence demonstrating the intoxication of a pedestrian who died after being struck by a vehicle.

The Sept. 28 opinion, written by Justice Debra Todd, stated: “We decline to adopt a Bright-line rule predicating admissibility on the existence of independent corroborating evidence of intoxication and, instead, hold the admissibility of BAC evidence is within the trial court’s discretion.”

The collision occurred on Jan. 13, 2012 near Castor Avenue and Howell Street in Philadelphia, according to the opinion. Ummu Massaquoi was driving on the roadway at night when she hit Thomas Coughlin, who was pronounced dead at a hospital after transport.

Coughlin’s mother, Ann, filed a lawsuit in 2013 claiming Massaquoi's carelessness and negligence caused her son's death. 

However, an autopsy showed that Thomas had a blood alcohol content, or BAC, of .313 as well as other illegal substances in his blood, the opinion states.

A trial court permitted Massaquoi to include this information as evidence, a decision the higher court backed. Ann Coughlin had sought "to preclude evidence pertaining to the alcohol and illegal substances that were present in Coughlin’s system at the time of his death, alleging that such evidence lacked necessary independent corroboration, was irrelevant, and would prejudice the jury," the court's opinion states.

In presenting the evidence, Massaquoi's defense also included testimony of a toxicology expert who stated anyone with a BAC of .313 would have poor judgment and motor skills. 

A jury found Massaquoi was negligent but that it was not the factual cause of Thomas’ death. 

Ann requested a new trial but was denied. She then filed a notice of appeal. 

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sallie Mundy said the Superior Court erred by upholding the trial court's decision.

“I disagree, however, that the mere fact that evidence exists to put a defendant's comparative negligence at issue is sufficient to establish the relevancy of intoxication,” she wrote.

“Accordingly, I would reverse the order of the Superior Court and remand the case for a new trial.”

Another justice concurred with the court and filed a separate opinion in the case.

“I agree that evidence of the pedestrian's intoxication is relevant to the issue of his or her comparative negligence and is therefore admissible,” Justice Christine Donohue wrote.

For the intoxication to be relevant to the case, Donohue said, “there must be circumstances of the incident that implicate the pedestrian's conduct as a cause of the accident.”

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