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Intoxication and Contributory Negligence

Our personal injury lawyers have handled numerous cases, which have been denied by the insurance company, when the plaintiff was intoxicated. Many insurance adjusters assert, incorrectly, that intoxication, standing alone, is evidence of contributory negligence. However, intoxication alone is not grounds for a jury instruction of contributory negligence if it is not a proximate cause of a collision.

What follows is a memorandum of the law dealing with the issue of intoxication and the defense of contributory negligence. Ever case is different and specific questions about your case should be direct to a competent attorney.

A defendant who asserts the defense of contributory negligence has the burden of proving it. Atkins v. Moye, 176 S.E.2d 789, 793 (1970). Moreover, a contention that certain acts or conduct of the plaintiff constituted contributory negligence should not be submitted to the jury unless there is evidence from which such conduct can reasonably be inferred. Id. at 793.

A motorist is guilty of negligence if the motorist operates a motor vehicle on a highway while under the influence of alcohol. Rhyne v. O'Brien, N.C. App. 284 S.E.2d 124 (1981). However, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated will not constitute actionable negligence unless it is causally connected to the accident. Id. at 124. A person will be deemed to be under the influence of alcohol when they have consumed “a sufficient quantity of intoxicating liquor to cause him to lose the normal control of his bodily or mental faculties, or both, to such an extent that there is an appreciable impairment of either or both of these faculties.” Id. at 124, 125. Thus, a finding of a jury that a motorist who was involved in a collision was under the influence of alcohol does not establish a causal relation between his condition and the collision. Id. at 125. Moreover, the intoxicated motorist condition must have caused the motorist to violate a rule of the road and to operate his vehicle in a manner which was a proximate cause of the collision. Id. Proximate cause is defined as, “a cause which in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any new and independent cause, produced the plaintiff’s injuries and without which the injuries would not have occurred. Efird v. Hubbard, 565 S.E.2d 713, 715 (2002).

In Boyd, the plaintiff brought and action against a trucking company and the truck driver (Defendants) for the wrongful death of her husband. Boyd v. L.G. DeWitt Trucking Co., S.E.2d 914, 915 (1991). The plaintiff sought both compensatory and punitive damages. At trial, the jury found that the both Defendants were willfully and wantonly negligent. Id. at 915. Id. The defendants appealed. Id.
In this case, the plaintiff’s decedent was driving along a highway with five other passengers when his pick-up truck stalled. Id. at 917. The vehicle stalled on a slight decline, so the deceased allowed the vehicle to coast as he made several attempts to restart the pick-up truck. Id. One of the passengers informed the deceased that there was an eighteen wheeler approaching, and the deceased continued to allow the pick-up to coast. Id. As the pick-up truck slowly coasted, the Defendant truck driver smashed into the back of the pick-up truck, killing the decedent and one other passenger. Id. Evidence revealed that the Defendant truck driver did not attempt to brake before smashing into the pick-up truck. Id.

The Defendants appealed on three grounds, but as pertinent to the issue at hand, the Defendants contended that the trial judge erred in excluding evidence of a state trooper who responded to the scene and the results of blood alcohol content test which revealed that the defendant had been drinking at the time of the collision. Id. at 920. The Defendants further argued that admission of such evidence would have supported a jury instruction of contributory negligence. Id. In assuming that the trial judge did err in excluding such evidence, the court found that such an error was harmless. Id. The court referenced the rule established in Rhyne, that even where a plaintiff is intoxicated, the intoxication must be the cause of a driver to violate a rule of the road, which proximately causes a collision in order to be found contributorily negligent. Id. Accordingly, the court held that the trial judge did not err in excluding testimony and evidence of the decedent’s intoxication and that a jury instruction of contributory negligence was not needed. Id. at 921.

In Adkins, the North Carolina Supreme Court opined that a motorist is guilty of negligence if he operates a motor vehicle on the highway while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, however, such conduct does not constitute actionable negligence or contributory negligence unless it is causally connected to the collision. Atkins, 176 S.E.2d at 794. In that case, the Plaintiff collided with the rear end of a tractor trailer that was stopped in the Plaintiff’s lane of traffic. Id. at 789. There was conflicting evidence as to whether the trailer had flashing warning lights on before the Plaintiff collided with the truck. Id. at 791. The defendant testified that he smelled alcohol on the Plaintiff after the collision and the responding police officer observed a bottle of alcohol that was not full under the seat of the Plaintiff’s vehicle and smelled alcohol in the vehicle. Id. at 792. Despite that evidence, the Plaintiff contended that he had not consumed any alcohol on the day of the collision. Id. at 792. The trial court dismissed the Plaintiff’s action because the jury determined that the Plaintiff was contributorily negligent. Id. at 789. The Court of Appeals held that the evidence was not sufficient to warrant a finding that the Plaintiff was driving under the influence of alcohol. Id. at 793.

The Supreme Court of North Carolina determined that evidence of an alcohol bottle and the smell of alcohol on the Plaintiff in conjunction with his failure to stop before the collision was sufficient to support a finding that that the Plaintiff’s faculties had been impaired by the consumption of alcohol. Id. at 794. However, the Supreme Court of North Carolina determined that the crucial question was not if the Plaintiff was intoxicated, but rather if he was exercising due care in the operation of his vehicle at the time of the collision. Id. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision that the Plaintiff receive a new trial because the trial judge failed to instruct the jury that if the jury found Plaintiff to be intoxicated, that determination should serve as mere evidence to be considered along with all other evidence in determining whether he was contributorily negligent, and not conclusive as to the Plaintiff’s contributory negligence. Id. at 795.

In Efird, the decedent’s estate (Plaintiff) sued the driver of the vehicle that collided with the vehicle that the decedent was a passenger in. Efird, 565 S.E.2d at 713. The driver of the car that the decedent was a passenger in failed to yield at a yield sign, and as a result the defendant collided with the vehicle. Id. at 714. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant and the Plaintiff appealed.

Evidence revealed that the defendant had a blood alcohol content level of .068 at the time of the collision. Id. at 715. During a deposition, the defendant provided testimony from an expert witness who determined that based on the measurements and weight of the vehicle, coupled with his analysis of the average perception reaction time to avoid impact, that there was not sufficient time for the defendant to avoid the collision once the driver of the car the decedent was a passenger in proceeded through the intercession without yielding. Id.

The Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that the defendant’s negligent driving claimed Dylan’s life. Id. The appellate court disagreed on the grounds that defendant’s blood alcohol content had no causal relationship to the collision. Id. The Plaintiff did not provide any evidence showing that the defendant’s blood alcohol content caused him to violate a rule of the road and to operate his vehicle in a manner which was the proximate cause of the collision. Id. at 716. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Id. at 716.

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