JBS Carriers, Inc v. Washington, 2018 WL 6712566, arose out of a pedestrian-truck collision resulting in the pedestrian’s death. The truck was making a slow turn through an intersection when the pedestrian was knocked down by the truck’s right front fender and run over by the tires. The decedent’s children sued the truck driver and his employer.
One of the central issues in the lawsuit was why decedent entered the street about twenty yards outside the designated cross-walk at the intersection. Evidence proffered by the defendants on this issue included decedent’s autopsy, the decedent’s medical records, and testimony by an expert medical witness. The autopsy showed that the decedent had alcohol, cocaine, and oxycodone present in her body. Her medical records revealed that a few months before her death she had been prescribed anti-anxiety medication and that she had undergone a psychiatric evaluation shortly before her death. Based on the psychiatric evaluation she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The defendants’ expert medical witness opined that the decedent’s judgment was, in reasonable medical probability, impaired as she entered the street outside the crosswalk with a large truck moving slowly into the intersection.
The trial court found that the proffered evidence was relevant and thus admissible unless its probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The trial court then weighed the probative value against the potential for unfair prejudice and sustained the plaintiffs’ objection to the admission of the evidence. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs—assigning only 20% of the comparative responsibility to the decedent. The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in refusing to admit the proffered evidence—noting the danger of the jurors unfairly labeling the decedent a bipolar schizophrenic drug addict.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that the trial judge abused his discretion in refusing to admit the proffered evidence. The court pointed out that most evidence is offered because it is prejudicial to the position taken by the opposing party (to wound the other party). The proper inquiry in weighing prejudicial impact versus probative value is whether admission of the evidence would cause unfair prejudice. Would admission of the evidence have tendency to result in the jury making its decision on an improper basis?
The Court cited cases holding that a party’s use of impairing substances is admissible if this evidence bears upon why the party acted as he or she did on the occasion in question. Similarly, there is ample case law holding that evidence concerning mental health issues is admissible, despite its prejudicial impact, if the evidence provides insight into why a party behaved as he or she did on the occasion in question.
Here the evidence proffered by defendants concerning decedent’s mental health issues and her use of psychotropic drugs, non-prescription drugs, and alcohol provided a possible explanation for why she entered the street outside the cross-walk despite the presence of a plainly visible large truck turning through the intersection. Due to the exclusion of this evidence, the jury was only provided with the plaintiffs’ explanation for why decedent entered the street outside the crosswalk. The plaintiffs’ explanation was that the decedent interpreted the truck driver’s hand signals (which were directed toward a driver entering the intersection from the other direction) as asking her to cross the street.
The Court concluded that the trial court’s refusal to allow the admission of the proffered evidence on this crucial issue was harmful error because the defendants were not able to present their explanation for why the decedent negligently walked into the street and collided with the truck’s fender.