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Case Bulletin – Federal District Court Allows Motor Vehicle Accident Defendant to Introduce Plaintiff’s Drug and Alcohol use to Rebut Damages

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania recently held that a defendant in a motor vehicle accident case may introduce evidence of a plaintiff’s prior drug and alcohol use to rebut the plaintiff’s alleged damages. Fife v. Bailey, 2016 WL 1404202 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 11, 2016).  In Fife, the Plaintiff filed a motion in limine arguing that all evidence and references to her prior drug and alcohol use, addiction, and rehabilitation should be precluded as irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial. Judge Malachy Mannion noted that the Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that such evidence – despite being highly prejudicial – was probative, and admitting it was well within the court’s discretion. Id. at *2 (citing Kraus v. Taylor, 710 A.2d 1142, 1146 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998)).

 

After finding no binding precedent on the issue, Judge Mannion reviewed decisions from the Sixth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits, which have each determined that a plaintiff’s history of alcohol or drug use is relevant to the issue of lost earnings. Id. The court also reviewed Pennsylvania federal district court opinions, which found that a history of drug and alcohol abuse factors into a person’s life expectancy, and that evidence of alcoholism can be used to rebut lost earning claims. Id.

 

Thus, the court denied Plaintiff’s motion in limine, noting “the danger of unfair prejudice of admitting evidence of a history of substance abuse is outweighed by the evidence’s probative value[.]” Id. In order to prevent any unfair prejudice, the judge determined it was sufficient to provide the jury with a limiting instruction that the evidence may only be used for the purpose of damages, specifically for its relevance to the plaintiff’s earnings capacity and life expectancy. Id. at *3.