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Establishing Marijuana Impairment Proves Challenging in Crash Injury Lawsuit

It’s well known that smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana before getting behind the wheel dramatically increases the likelihood of a car accident – even when the dose in question is small. However, proving marijuana impairment is much more difficult than proving intoxication by alcohol. That’s because marijuana remains in one’s system for much longer than alcohol. The effects may have long worn off, but traces of the drug remain days or even weeks after consumption. 

Although some states have a legal limit allowable, scientists and medical experts mostly agree these limits are arbitrary, and aren’t necessarily the most accurate markers for determining impairment. Florida does not have a per se limit for drivers when it comes to marijuana.

In car accident civil injury lawsuits, that can be a double-edged sword. If it is believed defendant driver was under the influence, plaintiff attorneys will be tasked with carefully piecing together the circumstantial evidence to show impairment was a causal factor – knowing the presence of the drug in one’s bloodstream in and of itself isn’t proof positive. On the other hand, it will be tougher for defendants to assert plaintiff impairment simply by virtue of the drug’s presence in the body. If a defendant is successful, it could significantly hurt plaintiff’s case in determining both liability and damages. 

Florida may be seeing more of these cases arise given the recent passage of medical marijuana legislation.

In a recent case before an appellate court in California (which does have a per se limit for marijuana), justices affirmed a $3.3 million verdict in favor of a minivan driver who was seriously injured when he was struck by a large truck, which had allegedly illegally crossed into his lane of travel. After plaintiff’s win, defendant appealed, arguing the lower court had erroneously excluded evidence of plaintiff’s marijuana use.

Defendant driver (joined in this action by trucking company employer), was operating a 45-foot trailer carrying 45,000 pounds of cement when, after a stopping for a nap, he re-entered the roadway, crossing the southbound lane in an attempt to gain access to the northbound lane. However, as he crossed the southbound lane, he collided with plaintiff, who was in a minivan with a passenger.

Plaintiff was trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes before he could be extracted and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. At the hospital, a urine sample was collected, and doctors noted the drug screen was positive for THC. However, doctors and other health care staff treating him said he showed no signs of marijuana impairment, aside from an elevated heart rate and memory loss, which could easily have been due to the stress and head trauma he was suffering in the aftermath of the car accident.

Plaintiff filed a motion in limine to exclude any evidence of marijuana in plaintiff’s system, presenting evidence that the metabolite in his system was inactive – meaning while he had used the drug prior in the days or weeks prior to the crash, he was not impaired. The traces of the drug found in his system were not having a psychoactive effect at the time of the collision. Trial court concluded there was not an adequate foundation to support defense conclusion that plaintiff was impaired, and granted the motion.

Upon review, the appellate court affirmed. And while defendant argued the trial court granted the motion in limine without a proper evidentiary hearing, appellate court noted defendant never requested an evidentiary hearing, as required by statute, so the court couldn’t be faulted for it. The $3.3 million verdict was affirmed.

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Additional Resources:

David v. Hernandez, July 25, 2017, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six

More Blog Entries:

Florida Appeals Court Reverses Premises Liability Lawsuit After DUI Death, Aug. 11, 2017, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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