Drunk Driving Verdict of $21 Million Dollars Affirmed
Gregory Smith and Nolan Clayton worked together at a local restaurant chain and frequently drank together, which is what they did after work one night in February of 2016. The two became so impaired that an employee asked Smith to leave, and the two exited together. The employee called a taxi for the pair. But as the taxi pulled in, the pair exited the parking lot, with Clayton at the wheel of his pickup truck and Smith in the passenger seat. Minutes later, Clayton crashed into a tree, the impact breaking Smith’s neck, rendering him quadriplegic, with no sensation or control from the neck down. Defendant’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.208 an hour after the crash.
Smith initially collected $5,000 in medical payments from his own auto insurance company (which denied coverage for bodily injury liability where the insured was the injured party). He then reached a settlement with the auto insurer of the Clayton’s parents, as well as with the liability insurer for the restaurant where the men drank that night. Smith then filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, and Clayton raised a non-party defense against the restaurant (meaning they could be apportioned fault, but would not have to pay, as their insurer had already settled).
The jury verdict in December 2017 found the restaurant 5% at-fault, Smith 35% at-fault and Clayton 60% at fault. No punitive damages were awarded.
Clayton appealed, arguing the trial court didn’t give him a fair trial on the issue of liability. In particular, he argued it was erroneous for the court to allow jurors to hear of his own prior bad conduct while not revealing Smith’s criminal history. Clayton had stated during the pre-trial deposition he’d driven intoxicated prior to the crash, even though he had no prior convictions for it. Smith meanwhile had previously been convicted of public intoxication, reckless driving, and battery and was on probation at the time of the crash. The defense’s theory was that because of this fact, Smith insisted on Clayton driving (though neither man actually remembers the conversation). Smith sought to suppress that evidence in a motion, which the trial court granted.
The appellate court disagreed this was an error, noting trial courts have broad discretion in determining the admissibility of evidence and there was no plain error. Smith’s own criminal history had nothing to do with the proximate cause of his injuries. Further, Clayton had admitted fault, but argued his percentage of fault wasn’t any greater than Smith’s or the restaurant’s.
The court noted both Smith and Clayton were seen in the eyes of the jury as “birds of a feather” due to their willingness to drink and drive, which they reportedly did together repeatedly in the months leading up to the crash.