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When is a Defendant’s Drunk Driving Relevant to a Personal Injury Claim?

Georgia follows what is known as “modified comparative fault” in personal injury cases. What does this mean? Well, let us say you are involved in an auto accident with another vehicle. You later sue the other driver for damages. If a jury ultimately determines that the other driver was 80% at-fault, that means you are 20% at-fault. You could still recover damages under this scenario, but your award would be reduced by 20% to account for your own “comparative fault.”

So, what happens if the jury decides you are both equally at-fault, i.e., you were both 50% responsible? In that case, you recover nothing. Georgia’s comparative fault law prohibits a plaintiff from taking anything in a personal injury lawsuit if he or she is found 50% or more at-fault.

Barrett v. Burnette

Of course, a jury’s apportionment of fault is based on the evidence presented. If the jury is not told certain things, such as the fact one of the drivers was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident, that can have a significant impact on the final apportionment. This means it is incumbent on trial judges to carefully weigh the admissibility of such evidence.

In a recent decision, Barrett v. Burnette, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a trial judge was wrong to exclude evidence of a defendant’s drunk driving from a personal injury case. Here is a brief overview of the facts. In July of 2015, the defendant was traveling in his car when he experienced a flat tire. The defendant testified that he then pulled his car off the roadway, activated his emergency flashers, and left the vehicle to return to his house to call for help (as his cell phone was not working).

While the defendant was away, the plaintiff, driving along the same road, hit the defendant’s car. Contrary to the defendant’s testimony, the plaintiff and another witness testified that the defendant’s car “was stopped in the middle of road and did not have its emergency flashers on.” For his part, the plaintiff was traveling in excess of the posted speed limit at the time of the collision.

The plaintiff sued the defendant. The plaintiff also served his own uninsured motorist carrier, which elected to the defend the case in the defendant’s name. At trial, the defense objected to the introduction of certain evidence related to the defendant’s citation for DUI at the scene of the accident. As it turned out, the defendant’s blood-alcohol content at the time was 0.123%, significantly higher than the legal limit in Georgia. That said, the state declined to criminally prosecute the defendant.

The trial court decided to exclude any evidence related to the defendant’s intoxication, holding whatever “probative value” it might have was “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” The jury subsequently determined each driver was 50% at-fault, meaning the plaintiff recovered nothing.

A divided three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals threw out the jury’s verdict, however, noting this case “hinged upon the credibility of the witnesses.” The defendant’s state of intoxication at the time of the accident was directly relevant to said credibility. As the appeals court noted, the trial judge barred the plaintiff “from even cross-examining [the defendant] about his admitted alcohol consumption and what effect that may have had on his recollection of events.” The appeals court said this was an error, and given the jury’s final apportionment of liability, said error was not “harmless.”