Florida – Trial Court’s Directed Verdict for Plaintiff on Intoxication Defense Reversed

Defendant appealed the trial court’s granting of a directed verdict during trial on the intoxication defense raised by Defendant pursuant to Florida Statute § 768.36. This statute precludes Plaintiff from recovering damages if the Plaintiff was more than 50% at fault as a result of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The evidence before the court revealed the following. Defendant left for work at 6:00 am. It was dark and he had the low beams turned on. He was traveling north in the center lane of a major six (6) lane road. There was a sidewalk next to the road. The Defendant moved into the right lane and traveled 200 yards. He suddenly saw a bicycle in the road in front of his van and swerved left. The right front headlight struck the bicycle’s rear tire and Plaintiff suffered serious injuries.

An investigation revealed Plaintiff was wearing non-reflective clothing, dark cowboy boots which heels covered the pedal reflectors, the bicycle did not have a headlight or taillight. There was conflicting evidence as to whether the rear reflector was positioned correctly. The Plaintiff was traveling four (4) feet from the edge of the road and the street light across from the accident was not functioning properly. The Plaintiff had a blood alcohol content of .23.

The defense presented experts that testified operating a bicycle requires coordination and bicyclists must divide their attention between physical and mental tasks. Expert testimony also presented was that a person with a .23 BAC could exhibit confusion disorientation, dizziness, distorted vision, and lack of coordination and lower inhibitions that can result in risky behavior. The expert opined Plaintiff’s balance, judgment, decision making, perceptions and reaction time would have been affected and he likely experienced dizziness and lack of coordination.

At the close of the evidence the trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion for directed verdict on the statutory affirmative defense but confirmed Defendant could still assert comparative fault but could not argue the accident occurred because of Plaintiff’s intoxication. Over objection, the jury was instructed that “alcohol consumption did not cause or contribute to the occurrence of this accident or plaintiff’s injuries.” The jury was also instructed it must decide “whether plaintiff was negligent and, if so, whether that negligence was a contributing legal cause of his injuries and damages.”  The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff but found he was 40% at fault.

Defendant argues that there was evidence that Plaintiff’s BAC contributed to the accident. The Court held that to survive a motion for directed verdict that is directed to a comparative defense, the evidence does not need to be conclusive that a plaintiff’s action or inaction caused the accident. It is enough that there is evidence from which the jury can make the inference. Where there is an inference of comparative fault on the part of the plaintiff the issue of comparative negligence should be submitted to a jury. The court further observed “that only in the rare case when there is simply no factual dispute as to apportionment of negligence, does the trial judge have the authority to make a ruling on the issue as a matter of law.”

The court remanded the case for a new trial on liability and apportionment of damages.

Mastec North America, Inc. and Robert W. Dumas v. Kathleen Morakis as guardian of Manuel Perez Garcia (Appeal from Palm Beach County Circuit Court: 4D18-1321)


About Luther, Collier, Hodges & Cash, LLP