Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Court of Appeal Orders New Trial in Suit Over Death of Motorist
Panel Says Judge Should Not Have Allowed Testimony About Decedent’s Marijuana Use
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday ordered a new trial in a wrongful death action, saying the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to hear evidence about the decedent’s marijuana use.
Div. Five held that testimony seeking to link Randy Hernandez’s recent marijuana use to his death, which occurred when he was struck and killed by a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department patrol vehicle as he stood outside his own vehicle—which had been disabled in a prior collision—was purely speculative.
Hernandez, a 20-year-old baggage handler at LAX, was en route to work on the 110 southbound on the early morning of Feb. 28, 2010 when the left front side of his Land Rover collided with the right rear side of a Cadillac, near Staples Center. That vehicle was either stopped while straddling two lanes, or being driven at a very slow rate of speed, after one of its tires went flat.
The driver of the Cadillac, Eric Lauderdale, later acknowledged that he did not immediately move the vehicle to a position of safety because he was worried about damaging his new tire rim.
Hernandez’s car spun around and came to rest in the fast lane, facing the Cadillac and oncoming traffic. He called 911.
Lauderdale later testified that he left his vehicle and went over to talk to Hernandez, who remained in his car until it was struck by some debris that flew up after being struck by a car in the second lane. Both were standing outside their vehicles when the Sheriff’s Department Crown Victoria, being driven by Deputy Sheriff Ted Broadston hit the Cadillac at full speed, then struck both men, killing Hernandez.
Lauderdale was knocked over the traffic barrier and suffered a broken ankle.
Debbie Castaneda filed suit on behalf of Jocelyn Hernandez, her and the decedent’s 2-year-old daughter.
An autopsy showed that Hernandez had smoked marijuana several hours before the accident. His mother testified that he suffered from chronic back pain and had a medical marijuana card.
Issues at trial included whether Broadston—who testified that he did not see either vehicle, or the headlights pointed toward him, prior to the collision—was driving negligently, and whether Hernandez’s marijuana use played a role in the fatal collision. Judge Michelle Rosenblatt denied the plaintiff’s motion in limine to bar evidence of Hernandez’s marijuana use.
The plaintiff’s lawyers emphasized that Hernandez died as a result of the second collision, not the first, and presented a medical toxicology expert who said that he had likely smoked a barely detectable amount of marijuana between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. the night before and that it would not have affected his driving, or his actions after the collision, six hours later.
The county’s expert disagreed, but acknowledged that it is not possible to measure how much marijuana will cause a driver to be impaired, as with alcohol, and that it was not possible to opine that being under the influence caused his death. The county’s lawyer, however, argued that Hernandez’s marijuana use was a factor in his decision to get out of his vehicle, a decision that contributed to his death.
Jurors ultimately determined that Broadston was 51 percent at fault, Lauderdale 35 percent, and the deceased 14 percent. They fixed total damages at $550,000, and judgment was entered in the amount of $280,500 plus costs.
The plaintiff moved for a new trial on grounds of evidentiary error and juror misconduct. They presented declarations from several jurors expressing the view that marijuana use was dangerous and that medical marijuana users were abusing the law and likely to be using more potent forms of the drug.
Rosenblatt denied the motion and allowed the judgment to stand as entered.
But Justice Sandy Kriegler, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the evidence of Hernandez’s marijuana use was more prejudicial than probative, and likely affected the verdict.
“There was no evidence Randy’s marijuana use contributed to the initial collision,” Kriegler wrote, nor any evidence that the effects of the drug caused him “to get out of his car or stand in a particular location.” The primary effect of the testimony about his drug use, the justice said, was to impugn his character, which “was not at issue” in the trial.
The jury’s allocation of fault, he went on to say, supports a finding of prejudice.
“The jury assigned only 20 percent more responsibility for the accident to Lauderdale than Randy, even though Lauderdale either parked his car on the freeway to prevent damage to his wheel rim or hit Randy’s car while Randy was trying to avoid him, then got out of his car right away and stood talking with Randy,” the justice wrote. “In the absence of speculation about the use and effects of marijuana, particularly when jury questionnaires showed six of the jurors fundamentally disagreed with the medical marijuana laws, it is unlikely the jury would have attributed 14 percent of the fault to Randy for his injuries.”
Attorneys on appeal were Bruce A. Broillet, Scott H. Carr, and Alan Van Gelder of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler and Stuart B. Esner, Holly N. Boyer and Andrew N. Chang of Esner, Chang & Boyer, for the plaintiffs and Brian K. Stewart, Melinda W. Ebelhar, Catherine M. Mathers and Erin R. Dunkerly of Collins Collins Muir & Stewart for the defendant.
The case is Hernandez v. County of Los Angeles, B243294.
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