The July 28, 2010 S.C. Court of Appeals decision in Johnson v. Horry County Solid Waste Authority, provides updated precedent regarding two important issues in many personal injury cases: (1) whether evidence of drug or alcohol use will be admissible to the jury and (2) the weight which commercial driver’s license manual (CDL) violations are given by the jury.
Admissibility of intoxication: In this case, the Court clarified the evidentiary “floor” and “ceiling” in evaluating whether evidence of drug or alcohol use of a party will be admissible to the jury. In Lee, our state Supreme Court allowed evidence of blood alcohol level when there was substantial corroborating evidence that blood alcohol content was a factor in the case before the jury. In Kennedy, our state’s Court of Appeals excluded evidence of toxicology when there was no corroboration of marijuana use or its impact on the accident before the jury.
The evidence was excluded as being more prejudicial than probative under Rule 403 of the Rules of Evidence. In the Johnson case, the facts were determined to fall somewhere in between the two extremes of the precedent cases, but the Court found that while the evidence of the plaintiff’s intoxication was relevant and somewhat probative, it was more prejudicial than probative, because there was little evidence that her intoxication played a factor in where she was standing at the time of impact. Therefore, the evidence was properly excluded by the trial court.
Jury instruction on CDL violations: While the Court of Appeals found that the trial judge made an error in charging the jury that they could consider violations of the South Carolina CDL Manual and read portions of the manual to the jury (because the CDL Manual itself is not state law), the jury instructions when read as a whole do not prejudice the County by improperly raising the standard of care placed upon its driver. The instruction overall charged the jury to hold the driver to the standard of a person of ordinary reason and prudence in the same situation.
This case provides injured persons with a precedent for excluding evidence of intoxication when it can be shown that the plaintiff’s intoxication has little to do with the cause of the accident. It also provides injured persons with an approved overall jury instruction that points out violations of the CDL manual as a relevant consideration for the jury. As a South Carolina personal injury attorney , I’ve seen many cases where the defendant driver is a commercial driver, and such violations of CDL and other regulations are important evidence in proving negligence.