New trial ordered in California wrongful death lawsuit due to irrelevant evidence about victim’s marijuana use

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by Jim Orr

Early one morning in February 2010, Randy Hernandez left his house in his Land Rover to drive to work. Another driver, Eric Lauderdale, was in the fast lane of the southbound 110 freeway when his car got a flat tire. Lauderdale slowed down his Cadillac rapidly and started to move to the right, but then either stopped the Cadillac straddling two lanes or continued to merge right very slowly. Hernandez was driving behind the Cadillac. The right rear of Lauderdale’s Cadillac and the left front of the Land Rover collided. The Land Rover spun and came to a stop in the fast lane, facing the Cadillac and oncoming traffic. Both cars were disabled in the fast lane.

Hernandez called 911. The dispatcher said she would send the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to assist him. Hernandez called his mother to say he had been in an accident, but was not hurt.

Lauderdale turned on his hazard lights and got out of his car immediately. He went to the passenger side window of the Land Rover to talk to the other driver. According to Lauderdale, Hernandez appeared unhurt, spoke intelligently, and suggested they should wait for the police. Then, a passing car caused heavy debris in the second lane to fly up and hit the Land Rover. When the debris hit the car, it scared both of them. Hernandez said, “I’m getting out!” Hernandez climbed over and exited through the passenger side door. Both men stood near the Land Rover.

Driver struck by vehicle driven by L.A. County Sherrif’s deputy

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Ted Broadston was driving a Crown Victoria in the fast lane. He never saw the disabled Cadillac and hit it at full speed. The Crown Victoria struck both men. Lauderdale’s body went over the concrete barrier and his foot was injured. Hernandez was killed.

An autopsy showed that Hernandez had smoked marijuana several hours before the accident. According to his mother, Hernandez suffered from chronic back pain and had a medical marijuana card.

Randy’s minor daughter Jocelyn Hernandez, through her guardian ad litem, brought a negligence action against the County of Los Angeles. The trial court concluded evidence of Hernandez’s marijuana use was relevant to assess fault attributable to Hernandez.

The jury found that the County, through Broadston, had been negligent, and his negligence was a substantial factor in Randy’s death. For the loss of Hernandez’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support, training and guidance, the, the jury awarded Jocelyn $550,000. The jury found Randy and Lauderdale were negligent as well, and their negligence was a substantial factor in causing Randy’s death. The jury assigned 51 percent of the responsibility for the death to the County, 35 percent to Lauderdale, and 14 percent to Randy. Based on the verdict, the trial court entered judgment in favor of Jocelyn and against the County for $280,500 and costs. Jocelyn appealed.

Appeals court orders new trial over improper evidence heard by jury

The California Second District Court of Appeal has now reversed and ordered that Jocelyn is entitled to a new trial. Hernandez v. County of Los Angeles, 2014 WL 2734955 (Cal.App. June 17, 2014). The court of appeal has determined that the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to hear evidence about the decedent’s marijuana use because there was nothing to suggest that it played any role in causing Hernandez’s death.

First, there was no evidence marijuana use by Hernandez contributed to the initial collision. Lauderdale was either traveling on the freeway at a very slow rate of speed or was stopped straddling lanes, not for safety reasons, but to avoid damage to his wheel rim. No expert testified Hernandez could have avoided the Cadillac if not for the effects of marijuana. Further, there was also no evidence that the effects of marijuana caused Hernandez to get out of his car or stand in a particular location. In sum, the County’s expert witnesses could not quantify the level of impairment that Hernandez was experiencing at the time of the accident, did not form an opinion that the marijuana Hernandez used caused the accident, and could not say that the marijuana Hernandez used or the fact of him being under the influence of marijuana caused his death.

According to the court of appeals, “[i]f none of the County’s experts could say Randy’s marijuana use was a substantial factor in causing his death, the jury could not speculate there was a causal connection between Randy’s use of marijuana and his death.” Accordingly, the evidence of marijuana use was irrelevant and should have been excluded. Because “it is reasonably probable that a result more favorable to Jocelyn would have been reached if the evidence of marijuana use had been excluded,” the court ordered a new trial.

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* Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson are all Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law — Texas Board of Legal Specialization.