Evidence of Intoxication is Not Necessarily Sufficient to Establish Liability

 

In Denton v. Taylor, No. E2015-01726-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 25, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a car accident case because “plaintiff provided no evidence establishing that the decedent’s negligence caused the accident.”

Plaintiff and the decedent, whose wife was the defendant here, were involved in a car accident in March 2013. Plaintiff could not remember anything about the accident, and the other driver was pronounced dead at the scene. In March 2014, plaintiff filed this negligence action.

Defendant moved for summary judgment fifteen months after the complaint was filed, submitting an affidavit from a sheriff’s deputy who stated that there were no witnesses to the accident and that a review of photographs and other evidence “was not able to determine the point of impact.” Defendant argued that plaintiff could not show that decedent’s alleged negligence had caused the accident. Plaintiff responded, relying on the post-mortem toxicology results that showed that decedent had hydrocodone and hydromorphone in his system.

At the summary judgment hearing, plaintiff verbally asked for time to obtain a report from a professional accident reconstructionist. After the hearing, plaintiff filed a written motion to the same effect. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, holding that “plaintiff has not produced any evidence of causation.” The trial court specifically noted that “[a]ssuming for the sake of this motion, that [decedent] was under the influence, there is no evidence that his intoxication caused the accident. There is no evidence that [decedent] crossed over into the plaintiff’s lane of travel or did anything else to cause the collision.” On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiff’s first argument on appeal was that the trial court should have given plaintiff additional time to get a report from an accident reconstructionist. The Court rejected this argument for two reasons. First, the Court noted that a party can respond to a motion for summary judgment by “submitting an affidavit in accordance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.07 requesting additional time for discovery.” (internal citation omitted). Rule 56.04 states that affidavits shall be filed “not later than five days before the [summary judgment] hearing.” According to the Court, “[b]oth the language of Rule 56.07, and the appellate opinions construing it, state that an affidavit must be filed in support of a request for more time,” as the affidavit “must explain why the nonmoving party has not been able to obtain and present the evidentiary material needed to oppose the summary judgment motion.” (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff did not submit an affidavit and offered no explanation as to why he needed more time, and his request for more time did not occur until after the actual summary judgment hearing, as opposed to five days before. For all of those reasons, the Court found that the trial court rightly refused the extension of time.

Second, the Court also affirmed the denial of more time due to the length of time plaintiff had already had to obtain the evidence. The Court noted that allowances for more time were supposed to give “all parties a ‘reasonable opportunity’ to proffer evidence in support of or opposition to a motion for summary judgment.” The Court found that plaintiff had a “reasonable opportunity” to get an accident reconstructionist report, as the complaint had been filed 15 months before, and plaintiff knew that he had no memory of the accident, that there were no witnesses, that the investigating officer had not determined a cause or point of impact, and that the other driver had died.

Plaintiff’s second assertion on appeal was that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding causation, and that summary judgment was therefore inappropriate. The Court also rejected this argument, reasoning:

[T]here is unfortunately no evidence available to prove the cause of the car accident. Plaintiff relies on the investigating officer’s accident report stating that the toxicology report showed hydrocodone and hydromorphone in the decedent’s system. Even assuming that decedent was intoxicated or impaired, there is no proof showing a causal link between his condition and the accident.

Summary judgment was accordingly affirmed.

The result is an appropriate one given the information shared in the opinion.  The mere occurrence of a crash does not mean that the injured party is entitled to compensation from the other driver.   Rather, proof of negligence and damages caused by that negligence must be demonstrated. If the only witnesses to the wreck are dead or lack memory of it, then the proof of negligence must come from the physical evidence.   If the physical negligence does not establish were the wreck occurred, proof of negligence is going to be impossible.