Thursday, September 29, 2005

drivers licence - incompetency - medical evidence v. lay evidence

Byler v. DOT, Bureau of Driver Licensing - Commonwealth Court - September 27, 2005

Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's decision, sustaining petitioner's appeal from DOT's proposal to suspend his license for medical reasons. DOT's proposed suspension was based on a letter from petitioner's doctor, which stated in its entirety: "Mr. Byler is a 79 year old white male.  He's an alcoholic and should not be driving a car.  He has significant alcoholic cerebellar degeneration." 

A person can be disqualified from driving if, in the opinion of a health care provider, a person's alcoholism is likely to impair his ability to control and safely operate a motor vehicle.   DOT has the initial burden of showing this by a preponderance of the evidence.  The driver can then rebut DOT's evidence, in which case DOT may be required to present additional evidence to satisfy its ultimate burden of proof.

Here, the trial court determined that DOT's initial burden was satisfied by the doctor's two sentence letter.  The appellate court did not really address that troublesome issue.  At any rate, the driver testified himself and also presented the testimony of his neighbor, both to the effect that although he did drink sometimes, he drank modestly, he never drove after drinking alcohol, never visited bars, and never drank outside the home.  DOT did not present any evidence other than the doctor's letter.

Both the trial court and appellate court found that the lay testimony presented by the driver was sufficient to rebut that of the doctor and called into question the credibility of DOT's evidence.  Because DOT presented no further evidence, the courts determined that DOT did not sustain its burden of showing that drinking was likely to impair the licensee's ability to drive.  

The Court rejected DOT's argument that only medical evidence could rebut medical evidence. "[N]othing in the applicable statutory or regulatory provisions or in the case precedents….requires that only medical evidence may be presented by the licensee to rebut a prima facie case of the licensee's incompetency based on a medical provider's report….It was within the trial court's discretion…. to determine that [the licensee] was not incompetent and that the testimony of  [the licensee and his neighbor] was more persuasive and credible that the evidence presented by DOT."

Donald Marritz, staff attorney
MidPenn Legal Services - Gettysburg