Rejecting a defense claim disputing the role of illicit stimulant drugs consumed by defendant two days prior to a fatal crash, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld a $3.4 million wrongful death verdict.
An expert witness for plaintiff – widow of the 50-year-old motorcyclist who was killed in the head-on collision in 2009 – had testified the effects of the drugs found in defendant’s system made him prone to inattention, fatigue and falling asleep at the wheel. This, combined with the fact that he’d had little sleep in the days preceding and had consumed alcohol over the limit, severely impaired his driving, jurors found.
Defendant appealed, arguing the expert witness testimony was based on incomplete studies and analysis. However, the state supreme court in Fleming v. Dionisio did not agree.
Having already been sentenced to five years in prison for DUI manslaughter, defendant will now be responsible to pay on that $3.4 million verdict, which included both economic and punitive damages. It’s worth noting injury damages stemming from DUI cases are not able to be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.
Previously, plaintiff settled another wrongful death and loss of consortium lawsuit against defendant’s father, who owned the vehicle he was driving at the time of the crash, for $1.3 million. The victim left behind a wife and daughter.
The just-turned-21-year-old had been on something of a binge in the days leading up tot he crash. On the night of July 3rd, he consumed several beers before sleeping for three hours and rising to work a 16-hour shift at a local restaurant. From there, he returned home, and consumed six to eight more beers between midnight and 3 a.m. Defendant states he does not recall what occurred between 3 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., but he awoke in the driver’s side seat of his father’s vehicle. He had crashed.
In so doing, he crossed the center line and struck the motorcyclist head-on.
A police officer arrived at the scene and found indications defendant was intoxicated, and perhaps not just by alcohol. His blood-alcohol level, taken two hours later at a local hospital, was 0.09, which is above the legal limit. While in the hospital, defendant learned the motorcyclist had died. He began debating whether he should drink his own urine, which was in a bed pan near the bed, in an attempt to destroy evidence. A nurse walked in on him consuming his own urine and took the bed pan away from him.
At trial, expert witness made note of the fact that toxicology reports indicated defendant had consumed cocaine and ecstasy some two days prior to the crash. This fact was relevant, the court ruled, because, as expert witness opined, the time lapse between consumption and the crash would have put defendant in a “crash state” at the time of the wreck. That is, he was coming down from the drugs, and was therefore more prone to extreme fatigue and other side effects that would have impaired his driving.
Jurors in the civil case deliberated just two hours before returning a verdict in favor of plaintiff.
On appeal, defendant argued the expert witness should not have been allowed to attest to drug use that occurred days prior to the crash. He also argued testimony of his post-crash behavior at the hospital was prejudicial and not relevant to the facts of the case.
However, that state supreme court disagreed, and the verdict was affirmed.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Fleming v. Dionisio , July 14, 2015, Connecticut Supreme Court
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