JANET FLEMING v. GREGORY DIONISIO et al., SC 19440

Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk

 

     Torts; Whether Expert Testimony that Defendant was in “Crash Phase” of Drug Withdrawal at Time of Accident Satisfied State v. Porter Criteria for Admissibility of Scientific Evidence.  The defendant’s vehicle crossed the double yellow line of a road and collided head-on with a motorcycle driven by Thomas Fleming, who died in the crash.  At the time of the accident, the defendant’s blood alcohol content exceeded the legal limit.  Also, toxicology tests showed the presence of several illegal drugs in the defendant’s urine but no drugs in his blood.  The plaintiff, as administratrix of her husband’s estate, brought this action against the defendant, alleging negligence, common-law recklessness and statutory recklessness under General Statutes § 14-295.  While the defendant admitted that he operated his motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a and that the accident was caused by his negligence, he contested the recklessness claims.  At trial, the plaintiff sought to introduce expert testimony from Michael McCabe, Jr., a toxicologist, regarding the effect the ingestion of drugs had on the defendant’s conduct.  The court agreed with the defendant that he was entitled to a hearing on the scientific reliability and admissibility of McCabe’s testimony pursuant to State v. Porter, 241 Conn. 57 (1997).  Under Porter, before scientific evidence may be admitted, the trial court must determine that the underlying theory or methodology is scientifically valid and that the evidence is relevant; that is, that the underlying reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in the case.  At the Porter hearing, McCabe explained that the presence of drugs in the defendant’s urine, but not in his blood, indicated that he had taken drugs several hours before the accident.  He stated that, while he could not testify that the defendant was under the influence of drugs at the time of the accident, he would testify that the defendant was in the “crash phase” of drug withdrawal, which contributed to him being fatigued at the time of the accident.  He opined that that condition was a contributing factor in causing the collision.  In support of his opinion, McCabe cited several studies purporting to find that being in the “crash phase” can impair one’s cognitive function and driving ability.  The court concluded that the proffered testimony was admissible under Porter and, following a trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff on all her claims and awarded her compensatory and punitive damages.  The defendant appeals, challenging only the awards of § 14-295 and common-law punitive damages.  He claims that McCabe’s testimony should have been excluded because the plaintiff failed to meet her burden under Porter of establishing both the scientific reliability of his testimony and that the proffered theory “fits” in this case.  The defendant also claims that the court erred in excluding evidence of his criminal punishment, in allowing evidence of his conduct hours after the accident, and in failing to strike the plaintiff’s testimony that she intended to use part of any damages award she recovered for charitable purposes.