Evidence of Drug Use May Be Relevant in Product Liability Litigation

Evidence of a plaintiff’s use of drug and alcohol is often admissible in a personal injury action.  While prejudicial, the usage of such substances is highly relevant when it contributed to causing the injury of which the plaintiff complains.  Simple enough.  But what happens when there is evidence of drug use in product liability litigation (by a plaintiff, not a manufacturer)?  Certainly, a product remains defectively designed or manufactured regardless of the user’s propensity to indulge in body altering substances, right?  Maybe not, says the Western District of Louisiana.

In Graham v. Hamilton, No. 3:11-609, 2012 WL 1898667 (W.D. La. May 23, 2012), the plaintiff’s alleged that the door latch design in a Chevrolet Camaro was unreasonably dangerous because it allowed an unlocked door to open during a motor vehicle accident.  As plaintiffs, the widower of the driver and the guardian of a child passenger, argued that had the door latch not been defectively designed, the driver would not have been ejected, would have survived the accident, and rescued her child before he died when the vehicle caught fire.

But there is one problem – the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident.

The plaintiffs moved in limine to exclude the evidence of drug use as unfairly prejudicial.  They argued that the mere mention of marijuana would

[C]reate an over-arching presence in jury deliberations which would cause a miscarriage of justice related to the issues of whether the Camaro was defective . . . .

The Court agreed that the evidence was highly prejudicial; however, the potential prejudice to the plaintiffs did not outweigh the probative value of that evidence.  According to the Court, the driver’s use of marijuana made it more likely that she caused her injuries and less likely that she could quickly remove her child from the vehicle.  As such, this evidence should be left in the jury’s hands.

We here at Abnormal Use don’t intend to engage in a socio-political debate regarding the use of marijuana.  But under the facts of this case, we must applaud the Court’s decision.  While we have no idea whether the design of the door locks was defective, a plaintiff’s own comparative fault must be considered.  The question is not whether product can be defectively designed when the user is high.  Rather, the question is whether a plaintiff should be able to recover when, despite the alleged defect, he had a hand in causing his injuries?

Comments

  1. Comparative fault is not an issue if the only claim is strict liability, but it seems to me that, if the plaintiff is claiming that the driver would have taken some sort of action after the accident, then the driver’s mental and physical abilities are at issue, and so the drug use is relevant causation.

    I have not read the opinion, but my concern is if this evidence is going to front the jury even though the driver had only a trivial amount of marijuana in his system, perhaps from marijuana use more than a day earlier. If the defendant does not have a toxicologist or the like to testify about the effects that level would’ve had on the driver at the time, then this evidence is indeed vastly more prejudicial than it is probative, because the defendant is just asking the jury to speculate about what certain levels of marijuana do to a person, something plainly outside of the understanding of a layperson.

  2. stuart mauney says:

    The critical issue is whether there is evidence of impairment–and lay witnesses can testify to that. Agree that it is problematic to admit drug or alcohol use without such evidence.

  3. A very different result occurred in Alami v Volkswagen where the NY Court of Appeals said that intoxication while driving does not preclude strict products liability for a defectively designed car.

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/nyctap/comments/i02_0018.htm

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