Defending A Driver for Marijuana “Intoxication”
As truck driver made an lane change, he collided with a passenger car, which was pushed into a retaining wall.
To add “insult to injury,” the truck driver was allegedly under the influence of marijuana. The driver and his employer were sued for punitive damages.
Obviously, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to demonstrate intoxication of a driver sufficient to warrant an award of punitive damages.
At the time of the subject incident, the truck driver complied with all regulations and testing implemented by the Louisiana State Police, and he candidly informed the police that he had ingested marijuana four days prior to the accident. Louisiana State Police performed a urinalysis on Mr. Stanford, but failed to administer a blood test to prove intoxication at the time of the accident. Plaintiff improperly bases her claim for punitive damages on the results of the urinalysis test.
The mere presence of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC in a urine sample is not sufficient evidence of intoxication or impairment, but rather is only an indication of past marijuana use. There must be a requisite indicia of reliability such that there is no question that the driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident in order for an award of punitive damages to be justified. The plaintiff was unable maintain a claim for punitive damages because she relied solely on the results of an unreliable form of testing, which did not conclusively prove intoxication at the time of the accident so as to justify a claim for punitive damages.
Pursuant to La. Civ. Code art. 2315.4, exemplary damages may be awarded upon Plaintiff’s proof that the injuries on which the accident is based were caused by a wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others by a defendant whose intoxication, while operating a motor vehicle, was a cause-in-fact of the resulting injuries. There is no presumption of intoxication in a civil proceeding, and the Plaintiff must prove by conclusive evidence that a defendant was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident.
In order to prevail on a claim for punitive damages under La. Civ. Code art. 2315.4, the Plaintiff must prove three separate elements, but the first element the Plaintiff must prove that the truck driver was intoxicated or had “a sufficient quantity of intoxicants to make him lose normal control of his mental and physical faculties.”
A urinalysis does not provide conclusive proof of intoxication. Althought, the chemical compound THC in the cannabinoid causes intoxication when an individual ingests marijuana, aurinalysis test that only evidencing traces of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC in the body is not indicative of intoxication or impairment, but merely an indication of past marijuana ingestion.
The results of a urinalysis test are not equivalent to the level of reliability present in a blood alcohol test. Particularly, because the urinalysis test is not designed to indicate intoxication or impairment, but rather is designed to demonstrate prior ingestion of THC. In contrast, a blood alcohol test is designed to indicate an individual’s blood alcohol content at the exact moment of testing.
Thus, one cannot equate the reliability of conducting a blood alcohol test with a urinalysis because the blood alcohol test is designed to indicate present intoxication and the urinalysis is ultimately only capable of indicating previous marijuana ingestion, not intoxication at the time the urinalysis is performed.
Furthermore, a blood alcohol test will reveal levels of alcohol which may be presumptive evidence of intoxication. The evidence of a controlled dangerous substance does not readily translate to presumptive levels of intoxication used in blood alcohol analysis.
In our case, the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages rested solely on the fact that the urinalysis performed by the Louisiana State Police indicated amounts of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC in his urine. The presence of traces of this compound is not indicative of intoxication at the time of accident. In fact, the truck driver candidly informed police that he had ingested marijuana four days prior to the accident. Thus, the presence of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC in his urine is consistent with past marijuana ingestion, and the urine test performed on him by the Louisiana State Police could be used to indicate or imply intoxication and/or impairment at the time of the accident.
It is a medical certainty that levels of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC will remain in the human body longer than the actual chemical THC. It is the THC, not the Carboxy-Delta-9-THC that causes an individual to feel the chemical effects of the drug.Thus, the level of Carboxy THC in the body of an individual who ingests marijuana depends on the individual’s ability to metabolize the cannabinoid THC and traces of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC may subsequently remain in the body for more than a month after ingestion of the chemical.
A blood test provides a far more reliable means of ascertaining whether or not an individual is intoxicated. Plaintiff was unable to offer reliable proof necessary to demonstrate that the insured driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
When THC enters the human body it is metabolized into a form known as Carboxy-Delta-9-THC.As every human system is different, each person’s body takes a different amount of time to metabolize THC. In fact, traces of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC could stay in an individual’s system for a month or longer depending on how quickly their body is able to metabolize the chemical.
In the case of Marine Drilling Co. V. Whitfield, 535 So. 2d 1253 (La. App 3 Cir. 1988), the Third Circuit Court of Appeal determined that a urinalysis which indicated the presence of Carboxy-Delta-9-THC in an individual’s system was not proof in and of itself that the defendant was intoxicated or impaired such that he could be deemed to be “under the influence” of the drug. This case involved an employee who was terminated for failing a urinalysis.
Thus, we argued that circumstantial evidence of previous consumption was not sufficient to justify an award of exemplary damages. A plaintiff requesting exemplary damages bears the burden of proving the defendant driver’s intoxication at the time of the accident. The plaintiff could not do so.