The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Rohe v. Vinson where the Superior Court ruled that a jury may have been prejudiced in a motorcycle crash case by evidence of the consumption of alcohol. A panel of three reversed a Bradford County Court decision, ordering a new trial. Judge Susan Peikes-Gantman said the jury may have been influenced by the evidence that was not properly admitted.
The Supreme Court denied the request to appeal shortly after another decision in Coughlin v. Massaquoi. In this matter, the court allowed evidence that a pedestrian had a BAC of 0.31% when he was struck and killed. The pedestrian was deemed as unfit to be crossing the multi-lane roadway where the accident occurred.
In Rohe, the plaintiff was operating a motorcycle traveling behind two large tractor-trailers, one driven by Darris Vinson. Rohe tried to pass both vehicles on the left; however, as he passed the first he struck the second truck, which was turning left. Rohe was ejected from the motorcycle and required a leg amputation. He filed suit citing a failure to yield and failure to activate a turn signal in sufficient time before turning.
In Ackerman v. Delcomico (1984) a Superior Court ruling stated that a BAC level alone was not admissible for proving intoxication. In Coughlin, the Supreme Court admitted the BAC evidence. Justice Debra Todd explained the BAC was sufficient because other evidence suggested alcohol consumption. The plaintiff attorney explained that in Coughlin the BAC was well beyond the legal limit, yet in Rohe it was below the limit.
The Supreme Court explained that a new trial would be appropriate when a court potentially reaches an outcome that may have been prejudiced; however, courts have discretion regarding whether to allow or exclude evidence. Rohe and a companion provided testimony they visited several bars that day over a 6 to 7 hour time-frame. At each stop they claimed to have had one beer, but had two at the final bar they visited while eating dinner.
The jury heard this evidence relating to alcohol consumption and they rendered a verdict in favor of the defendant. The Superior Court appeal stated no clear evidence of operating while intoxicated was shown, merely that some consumption had occurred. Rohe’s BAC two hours after the crash was .07%, slightly below the .08% limit, yet the defense said it had to have declined by this time from what was a level over the limit at the time of the accident.
Judge Gantman clarified the ruling from Coughlin. In this case, based on the BAC results, additional evidence would be required to prove intoxication. The defense theory that Rohe’s BAC was over the limit at the time of the accident was insufficient. In addition, the defense had made an error when they stated that emergency responders and hospital staff smelled an odor of alcohol from Rohe. None of these parties stated that they had any indication that the plaintiff was intoxicated.