When a car accident causes a fatality, it can be uncomfortable to place blame on the deceased. But in a wrongful death lawsuit claiming another person negligently caused a motor vehicle-related death, juries are asked to assess the comparative negligence of the victim as part of its liability determination.
In Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department v. Yeghiazarian, the Nevada Supreme Court clarified what evidence a jury may hear to assist them in their comparative negligence assessment. In Yeghiazarian, Raymond Yeghiazarian attempted to take a left turn at a permissive green light in his vehicle. At the same time, Officer Wicks, a Las Vegas police officer, was traveling toward Raymond on the opposite side of the road. Officer Wicks did not have his cruiser lights activated, but was traveling at a rate between 58 and 74 miles per hour in a 45 mile-per-hour zone. Raymond apparently did not realize how quickly Officer Wicks was approaching, and was unable to clear the intersection in enough time to avoid collision with the cruiser. The collision caused Raymond to suffer severe internal injuries and trauma to his brain stem, and sent him into a coma. He died three weeks later.
Raymond’s family brought a negligence lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD). To suggest that Raymond may have been intoxicated at the time of the accident, the LVMPD wanted to offer evidence at trial that, according to a blood sample drawn from him several hours after the crash, Raymond had a blood alcohol content level (BAC) of .049%. If the jury accepted that suggestion, it could have used it to find a greater degree of comparative negligence on Raymond’s part, and thus proportionately reduced any award of damages to Raymond’s estate and family.
The lower court did not permit the jury to hear the evidence of Raymond’s BAC at trial, reasoning that the LVMPD did not have any other evidence that suggested intoxication, either through a witness who had observed Raymond prior to the accident or by expert testimony. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Raymond’s family in the amount of $2 million, but found that Raymond was 25% negligent, and Officer Wicks was 75% negligent, in causing the accident. The court accordingly reduced the damages award by 25%, and then imposed the mandatory limitation of $50,000 for damages in tort actions against state entities. (Although the present maximum limitation on damages against state entities is $100,000 per claimant, an older version of the statute providing a limit of $50,000 per claimant was in effect at the time of the accident.) The total award to the five plaintiffs was $250,000. In addition, the plaintiffs were awarded attorney fees and costs of nearly $100,000 because the LVMPD had rejected the plaintiffs’ offer of judgment of $200,000 four months prior to trial.
On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court held that the lower court had correctly excluded the evidence of Raymond’s BAC level, because there was no causal link shown between Raymond’s alleged impairment and the accident. Raymond’s BAC level was under the legal limit, and allowing the jury to hear that evidence would have required the jury to speculate about the effects of his BAC on his reaction time and judgment at the time of the accident. If Raymond had been intoxicated at the time of the accident, it certainly would have been relevant. But because the LVMPD lacked evidence of intoxication beyond the speculation-inducing BAC, that evidence was more prejudicial than probative, and inadmissible at trial.