Sudden-Loss-of-Consciousness Defense – Evidence – New Trial

Pearce v. Estate of Day, [Ms. 1200623, May 27, 2022] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2022). The Court (Mendheim, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Shaw, Wise, Bryan, Sellers, Stewart, and Mitchell, JJ., concur) affirms the Dale Circuit Court’s denial of a motion for new trial in an action tried to a defense verdict. Icylene Pearce, as the personal representative of the estate of her late husband, Dewitt Ray Pearce (“Dewitt”) filed suit for Dewitt’s wrongful death arising from a head-on collision with Daniel Lea Day (“Day”) who was also killed in the collision. At the time of the accident, Day was working as a part-time driver for Enterprise Leasing Company-South Central, LLC (“Enterprise”). Ms. *2.

On appeal, Pearce challenged the trial court’s exclusion of certain evidence relating to the defense that Day suffered a sudden loss of consciousness and also asserts that the defense verdict was against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence. The following standards of review apply to Pearce’s contentions

[T]he trial court has great discretion in determining whether evidence ... is relevant and whether it should be admitted or excluded.” Sweeney v. Purvis, 665 So. 2d 926, 930 (Ala. 1995). When evidentiary rulings of the trial court are reviewed on appeal, “rulings on the admissibility of evidence are within the sound discretion of the trial judge and will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion.” Bama’s Best Party Sales, Inc. v. Tupperware, U.S., Inc., 723 So. 2d 29, 32 (Ala. 1998), citing Preferred Risk Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ryan, 589 So. 2d 165 (Ala. 1991).’ ” Van Voorst v. Federal Express Corp., 16 So. 3d 86, 92 (Ala. 2008) (quoting Bowers v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 827 So. 2d 63, 71 (Ala. 2001)). “ ‘A strong presumption of correctness attaches to a jury verdict in Alabama. Christiansen v. Hall, 567 So. 2d 1338, 1341 (Ala. 1990). This presumption of correctness is strengthened by a trial court’s denial of a motion for new trial. Id. This Court will not disturb a trial court’s denial of a motion for new trial when evidence has been presented that, if believed, would support the jury’s verdict.’ ” City of Birmingham v. Moore, 631 So. 2d 972, 974 (Ala. 1994) (quoting Fidelity & Guar. Ins. Co. v. Sturdivant, 622 So. 2d 1279, 1280 (Ala. 1993)).

Ms. *20.

The Court first notes that the critical issue in regard to a sudden-loss-of-consciousness defense is whether the defendant “lapsed into unconsciousness prior to the accident without any warning symptoms, or knowledge that such a condition would occur…” Ms. *23. The Court first concludes the trial court did not exceed its discretion in excluding evidence of Day’s alleged suicidal ideations. The Court explains “Pearce does not contend that the evidence was relevant because Day was attempting to commit suicide via the accident…. Absent a direct connection between suicidal thoughts and the accident itself, the relevance of the evidence is tenuous, while the potential for unfair prejudice is palpable.” Ms. *31, underlined emphasis in the original.

The Court also rejects Pearce’s challenge to the exclusion of evidence relating to Day’s medical history. The Court explains that Pearce’s arguments for the materiality of this excluded evidence centered on Day’s knowledge of his overall health. However, the central issue is whether “‘the driver knows that his or her condition is such that he or she is prone to suddenly ‘black out,’ faint, or suffer a sudden ‘attack or stroke….’” Ms. *36, quoting Russell L. Wald, Liability for Sudden Loss of Consciousness While Driving, 17 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 1, 6-7 (1992). The Court also notes that “ the jury ultimately was informed about most of the medical history that Pearce complains was excluded” so that any alleged error in this regard was harmless. Ms. *37.

Pearce also challenged the exclusion of evidence that fluid taken from Day’s body at autopsy allegedly showed he used marijuana 24-48 hours before the crash. In addition to noting that this “evidence” was speculative, the Court holds that “without evidence that Day’s marijuana use impaired him, and therefore contributed in some way to the accident, admission of the evidence could lead to the jury’s deciding the case on an improper basis. Therefore, the trial court did not exceed its discretion by excluding such evidence.” Ms. *41, citing Carter v. Haynes, 267 So. 3d 861 (Ala. Civ. App. 2018).

Finally, the Court notes that “Day’s having knowledge that he possessed certain risk factors that could lead to a heart attack is not the same as having knowledge of a condition that is likely to lead to a loss of consciousness.” Ms. *45. Accordingly, the Court holds

[T]he question whether Day had sufficient knowledge that would lead to the conclusion that he should not have been driving is quintessentially one for the jury. The jury heard testimony about Day’s other medical conditions, his aortic-valve replacement, and his heart attack of March 1, 2017, and yet the jury returned a verdict in favor of Day’s estate and Enterprise. The fact that it did so does not mean that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence but, rather, that the jury believed Day’s knowledge was not sufficient to put him on notice that he was likely to lose consciousness while driving. Given the evidence presented, the jury reached a reasonable conclusion, which we will not disturb.

Ms. *48.

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