A Florida district court of appeals recently rendered its decision on an appeal based on the trial court’s decision to exclude various pieces of evidence from consideration by the jury.
In the case, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant revved the engine of his Chevrolet Camaro, thus signaling his alleged desire to race the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs alleged that after riding next to their two motorcycles and swerving into their lane twice, he hit the first motorcycle (which had one passenger), which then crashed into the second motorcycle and then drove away. The plaintiffs survived the accident, but suffered serious personal injuries which required medical treatment. Prior to the accident, the plaintiffs had stopped at a restaurant and then a bar, and were headed home when the accident occurred.
At trial, the defendant claimed that the motorcycles caused the accident to occur by one driver accidentally turning onto the other one. He claimed comparative negligence as a defense. Witness testimony as to what happened was similarly inconsistent.
At trial the Plaintiffs sought exclusion of various evidence, including that one of the drivers of the motorcycles had a restricted license which did not permit him to carry a passenger, evidence that the motorcycle drivers had visited a bar prior to the accident, and the exclusion of certain eye witness testimony. All of the various exclusions were granted.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidentiary rulings were incorrect, since the excluded evidence was relevant, probative, and supported by expert testimony where necessary.
Exclusion of Witness Statement in Police Report
With regard to the witness statement contained within the police report, that the trial court excluded from consideration on the plaintiffs’ urging, the court of appeals turned to 316.066 § 4, Florida Statutes (2006), which states in relevant part:
“No such report or statement shall be used as evidence in any trial, civil or criminal.”
In interpreting the statute, however, the court of appeals found that the privilege was only extended to the driver, owner or occupant of the vehicle as necessary to make the report, but does not extend to witnesses, as they are not obligated to make such statements. The trial court’s ruling was apparently based on the fact that the witness that was giving the statement was involved in a subsequent minor fender bender accident, which happened because another driver had pulled over to render aid to the plaintiffs in the initial (motorcycle) accident. Thus, the trial court found that the two accidents were related, and the witness’s statement was therefore covered by the relevant immunity protection. The court of appeals rejected this conclusion, finding the witness’s accident wholly separate from the motorcycle accident, and thus subject to consideration in the evidentiary record.
Exclusion of Evidence of Alcohol Consumption
The evidence the defendant sought to introduce at trial included statements by two of the three plaintiffs, admitting that they had been drinking prior to the accident; statements of various medical personnel that purportedly smelled alcohol on the plaintiffs; and expert witness testimony that even one or two drinks could potentially have a significant impact on the reaction time and perception of the driver of a motorcycle.
At trial the plaintiffs argued that because the blood draw conducted at 4 a.m. returned zero blood alcohol content and that there was no field evidence of intoxication, etc. any evidence relating to alcohol consumption should be excluded. The trial court inevitably excluded the evidence finding it to be too prejudicial.
The court of appeals disagreed with the trial court’s decision, finding, “Whether or not a person is under the influence of intoxicating liquor to the extent that his or her normal faculties are impaired is a question of fact and should be determined by the jury when there is substantial evidence submitted on that question.”
Additionally, it found that the defendant should be permitted to pursue a defense under § 768.36, Florida Statutes (2006), which states in pertinent part that in any civil action, a plaintiff may not recover damages for personal injury if at the time the plaintiff was injured, s/he was impaired by the influence of alcohol such that as a result of the influence the plaintiff was more than 50 percent responsible for his own harm.
Exclusion of Temporary Motorcycle License
The trial court excluded the evidence regarding one of the plaintiffs having had only a temporary motorcycle license (which did not allow him to have a passenger) at the time of the accident because in its opinion, the mere violation of the condition did not prove negligence on behalf of the plaintiff.
However, the court of appeals disagreed, finding the trial court erred in excluding the evidence. For example, it stated, the driver with the restricted license reportedly admitted knowing that carrying a passenger could change the dynamics of a motorcycle. Thus, the court found that the restricted license and its violation was relevant to the case at hand, and that it should have been presented to the jury for consideration as to whether the violation may have proximately caused any of the injuries sustained by the plaintiffs.
Due to the trial court’s decisions to exclude the witness statement, evidence of alcohol consumption, and restricted license violation, the court of appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. However, it cautioned that heightened scrutiny should be paid to determining which evidence related to alcohol consumption and the license violation should be admitted, due to the potential to cause prejudice in the minds of the jurors.
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Motorcycle Accidents in Miami, Miami Injury Lawyer Blog, published June 27, 2017
Why You Should Hire a Miami Motorcycle Accident Injury Lawyer, Miami Injury Lawyer Blog, published June 20, 2015