California Court of Appeal Holds Evidence of Drug Abuse Admissible to Determine Non-Economic Damages in Wrongful Death Action and Emphasizes Importance of Well-Prepared Legal Briefs

By editor on July 21, 2019

On July 10, 2019, the California Court of Appeal issued a decision in Karen Hernandez, et al. v. First Student, Inc., et al., an appeal that arose out of a wrongful death action. In the decision, the Court of Appeal repeatedly admonished Appellants for their failure to preserve objections at trial, failure to cite to the record in their brief, and failure to provide legal authority or argument for their position. The Hernandez case ultimately serves as a reminder to write clear and concise briefs that lay out an argument with citations. Substantively, however, the Court of Appeal ruled that there was no abuse of discretion when the trial court admitted evidence of Karen Hernandez’s drug abuse during the damages phase of trial.

This appeal arose out of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Karen Hernandez and Sergio Saravia, the parents of 13-year-old Jonathan Hernandez, after their son was struck and killed by a school bus while riding his bicycle in Glendale, California. The school bus was owned by First Student, Inc. The driver, Barbara Calderon, was within the course and scope of her employment with First Student, Inc. at the time of this accident.

Trial was bifurcated. At the liability phase, the jury determined that both Ms. Calderon and Jonathan were negligent. In the damages phase of the trial, the jury awarded Jonathan’s parents $250,000 in damages, but the award was adjusted to reflect the jury’s finding that Jonathan was eighty percent liable. Jonathan’s parents filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied.

Appellants appealed the trial court’s denial of their motion for a new trial on the grounds of juror misconduct, erroneous evidentiary and instructional rulings, and attorney misconduct. Before discussing these grounds, the Court of Appeal sharply criticized the motion overall. The Court found that Appellants frequently failed to site to or quote the record, which frustrated the Court’s ability to evaluate which facts supported their position. These failures ultimately resulted in the Court of Appeal finding that Appellants had forfeited many of their claimed errors on appeal.

However, on one of the claimed errors that the Court of Appeal found was not forfeited (the admitted evidence of Karen Hernandez’s drug abuse), the Court of Appeal determined there was no error. At trial, evidence was admitted of Ms. Hernandez’s use of crystal methamphetamine. Appellants contended that this evidence was prejudicial with little evidentiary value. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, finding that Ms. Hernandez’s drug use was relevant to her wrongful death damages claim and recognizing that “[f]actors such as the closeness of a family unit, the depth of their love and affections, and the nature of the personal relationship between decedent and the survivors are proper considerations for a jury assessing noneconomic damages.” In particular, the Court of Appeal noted that Ms. Hernandez testified that she remained under the influence of crystal meth for days after use and was under its influence while parenting Jonathan. She also admitted that the drug made her stay awake for 72 hours straight, caused her to be aggressive, and that she was arrested for assaulting a person with scissors and making threats while in Jonathan’s presence. All of this, the Court of Appeal ruled, was relevant to damages. Moreover, the Court of Appeal was satisfied that an instruction to the jury which advised the jury that the evidence of Ms. Hernandez’s drug use was admitted only for the “limited purpose” of “determining the quality of her relationship with Jonathan Hernandez with respect to damages” was sufficient to guard against any prejudicial effect.

The Hernandez case confirms that evidence of drug or substance abuse may be relevant in determining damages when it affects the quality of the relationship between the survivor and the decedent. It also serves as a reminder to attorneys of the importance and requirements of drafting well-prepared briefs with headings and appropriate citations. A clear argument, using headings as an outline, with citations to the record and legal authority creates a strong and well-organized presentation to the court, which assists the court in identifying and understanding the arguments.

A copy of the decision can be found here.

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