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Trial Court Committed Error In Permitting Plaintiff’s Alcohol Consumption Admitted Into Evidence In A Fall Down Case

By on December 18, 2020 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Elizabeth Harrington was having dinner at the defendant Fire & Oak restaurant in an elevated booth.  She had consumed two glasses of wine.  When she stepped down to exit the booth, she fell and fractured her hip.  The issue in Harrington v. South City Prime Montvale, LLC, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2417 (App. Div. December 17, 2020) was whether the trial court judge impermissibly permitted the defense to introduce into evidence the plaintiff’s alcohol consumption.

Plaintiff was having dinner with her friend at the defendant Fire & Oak restaurant.  They sat in the bar and lounge area of the restaurant which had elevated banquet style booths constructed on top of a 12½ inch platform.  A customer would have to step onto the platform to enter the booth and step down to exit the booth. 

Plaintiff and her friend dined for about 3½ hours.  During that time period, the plaintiff drank two glasses of wine.  When they finished the meal, the plaintiff stepped down to exit the booth and fell.  She suffered a fracture of her right hip, which eventually required two surgeries to repair.

The manager on duty offered the plaintiff assistance following the fall.  He prepared an incident report which described the event and made no mention of any signs of intoxication. 

Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant restaurant on the basis that the restaurant allowed a dangerous condition to exist on the premises, which caused her injuries.  There was a dispute during the trial concerning the admissibility of plaintiff’s alcohol consumption on the night of the fall.  The defense had argued that the evidence was relevant to the events that occurred that night.  The plaintiff argued, on the other hand, that the evidence was irrelevant, highly prejudicial, and barred by case law.  Ultimately, the trial court ruled that evidence of the plaintiff’s alcohol consumption was admissible for the sake of a complete narrative as to what transpired on that evening.

The manager, however, testified that he observed plaintiff immediately after the fall and did not notice any signs of intoxication.  He prepared a memo describing the incident and included all of the information that he felt was important.  The memo did not indicate that plaintiff had bloodshot eyes, slurred her speech, or exhibited any other signs of intoxication.

The case was tried to a jury who returned a no cause verdict in favor of defendant.  By a vote of 5-1, the jury found that the defendant restaurant’s premises were reasonably safe on the night of the fall.  Plaintiff then moved for a new trial, based on a number of allegedly incorrect evidentiary rulings, including the admission of evidence as to the plaintiff’s alcohol consumption.  The no cause verdict ended up on appeal to the Appellate Division. The plaintiff argued on appeal that it was an error in permitting evidence of, among other things, her alcohol consumption on that night.

The Appellate Division discussed prior case law concerning the admission of evidence in accident cases.  Based upon prior case law, evidence of drinking alcohol to establish negligence must be supported with proof that the drinking affected the party’s conduct. 

Here, the Appellate Division noted that the defendant offered no supplemental evidence suggesting plaintiff’s intoxication.  There was no testimony concerning the volume of the wine glasses, plaintiff’s weight, or any testimony to establish when, during her 3½ hour long dinner, the wine was consumed.  Further, the Court noted that there was no evidence of plaintiff’s blood alcohol level, nor expert testimony to establish how her alcohol consumption may have impaired her.  Further, there was no lay testimony evidencing any kind of behavior to suggest that she may have been impaired.  To the contrary, the restaurant’s own employee testified that the plaintiff showed no signs of impairment and he did not include alcohol consumption as a contributing factor of the accident in his incident report.

The Court pointed out that prior case law has held that evidence of alcohol consumption prior to an accident is inherently very prejudicial.  Without supplemental evidence of intoxication, the case law has held that evidence of alcohol consumption is inadmissible.             

Based upon the existing case law and the facts of this case, the Appellate Division found that the admission of the alcohol consumption evidence warranted a reversal of the jury award.  Hence, the no cause verdict was reversed and remanded for a new trial.


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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020-2023, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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