Fifth Circuit Affirms Exclusion of Offshore Employee’s Drug Test Evidence and Substantial Jury Award

In a recent admiralty and maritime case, Hale v. Wood Grp. PSN, Inc., No. 18-31090, 2019 WL 1773276, at *2 (5th Cir. Apr. 22, 2019), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of a drug test as evidence pertaining to Plaintiff, an employee working on an offshore supply vessel, and a substantial jury award.

Hale v. Wood Grp. PSN, Inc. Background

Plaintiff was employed offshore as an erosion and corrosion technician. He was required to spend extended periods offshore, accessing platforms via offshore supply vessels. Prior to his employment with Oceaneering, Plaintiff injured his shoulder and was prescribed hydrocodone. He also had a prescription for Adderall.

In June 2014, Plaintiff was injured during a personnel basket transfer when the basket struck equipment on the deck of the vessel, causing him to fall from the basket onto the deck. He alleged significant injuries to his back and took hydrocodone following the accident. A post-accident drug screen showed positive results for opiates and amphetamine.

JUDGE GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion to Exclude Post-Accident Drug Test

Plaintiff sued several defendants, claiming they negligently caused his injuries. Prior to trial, the judge granted Plaintiff’s motion to exclude all evidence pertaining to the post-accident drug screening and his use of prescribed medication. Following trial, a jury determined that Defendants were ninety percent at fault for Plaintiff’s injuries and awarded $2.25 million in general damages.

Defendants Argue Judge Erred in Excluding Evidence, Jury Award Excessive

Defendants moved for a new trial on damages or remittitur, arguing that the jury award was excessive. After their motion was denied, Defendants appealed, arguing that the judge erred in excluding evidence regarding Plaintiff’s post-accident drug test and his possession and use of prescription medication.

The judge excluded the post-accident drug test and Plaintiff’s use of prescription drugs after experts from both sides agreed that the drug screening was not a reliable indicator of Plaintiff’s faculties and could not be used to support a finding that he was impaired at the time of the accident. Without a causal connection between Plaintiff’s use of medication and his injuries, the judge determined that the evidence was highly prejudicial and lacking in probative value. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that there was no abuse of discretion in this determination.

Defendants also argued that the judge erred in denying their motion for new trial or remittitur because the jury award was clearly excessive. Defendants cited cases in support of their argument that the jury award was clearly excessive and, although the judge acknowledged the cases cited by Defendants, she found that the trial produced evidence that Plaintiff’s injuries were distinguishable and more severe than those in the cited cases.

The Fifth Circuit found that there was no indication in the record that the judge abused her discretion in distinguishing the cases cited by Defendants, and that Defendants failed to satisfy the high burden for overturning a jury award.