Personal Injury

What is the "Sudden Emergency Doctrine" in Personal Injury Law?

By Carol DiBari, Attorney
Otherwise-liable personal injury defendants may be afforded the “sudden emergency" defense in very specific situations.

In the context of a personal injury case, the "sudden emergency doctrine" is an affirmative defense that may be available to defendants in some states, in very limited circumstances. The doctrine essentially says that when a defendant -- the person being sued or accused of liability for an injury -- encounters a sudden and unexpected situation, one that is not of the defendant’s own making, he or she need only act as a reasonable person in that same situation would act.

The “sudden emergency doctrine” essentially alters the definition of negligence by changing the standard of care to which the defendant is held. Rather than having to act as a reasonably prudent person under the larger circumstances, the defendant need only have acted as a reasonably prudent person would have in the context of the same emergency situation.

Common Elements of the Sudden Emergency Doctrine

States that recognize the "sudden emergency" rule usually do so not because a specific statute has been passed in that state, but because the state's courts have recognized the rule in decisions handed down over the years. So there are no universally applicable elements of doctrine across all states. Having said that, in order to rely on the "sudden emergency" defense, the defendant must typically show that, in the context of the underlying accident:

If the defendant is unable to establish all of the above elements, he or she probably will not be able to rely on the "sudden emergency" affirmative defense, and may be held liable for the damages resulting from the underlying accident.

What Constitutes a "Sudden Emergency"?

The types of situations that constitute a "sudden emergency" vary from state to state, but they all typically leave the defendant with no way to avoid the emergency, or otherwise safely react.

Sudden Stops. Some states recognize the sudden stop of a lead vehicle as a "sudden emergency" that excuses or limits liability for a rear-end collision. However, other states reject this view, noting that drivers should keep a safe distance between vehicles at all times, so that even in the event of a sudden stop, there is adequate time and space to avoid a collision.

Weather Conditions. An unexpected dust funnel or dense fog moving across the roadway and severely limiting drivers’ vision might constitute a “sudden emergency,” if these conditions could be considered highly unusual for the area. In contrast, a driver who hits a patch of black ice probably could not successfully claim a “sudden emergency,” since black ice can usually be expected in snowy, freezing weather.

Unexpected Roadway Obstructions. Another situation that may qualify as a “sudden emergency” is one in which something unexpectedly enters the roadway, causing a driver to immediately react in a way that would otherwise be considered negligent. Examples include a tree falling into the roadway, a pedestrian running out into street, or an oncoming vehicle crossing over the dividing lines. In each of these situations, so long as the driver had no reason to anticipate their occurrence, the “sudden emergency doctrine” might apply.

Medical Emergencies. Medical emergencies are usually considered “sudden emergencies” and will typically relieve the ailing driver of liability for an ensuing car accident, since the crash was caused by something beyond the driver's control. A driver who suffers a medical emergency may be rendered unconscious by an entirely unforeseeable medical event, and may have no opportunity to mitigate the situation (no chance to slow or pull over). However, if the at-fault driver experienced symptoms indicating the onset of a medical emergency well before the crash, or if a known medical condition made it foreseeable that a medical emergency might occur while driving, the “sudden emergency doctrine” probably would not be available as a defense.

Does the Doctrine Apply to My Case?

While most states recognize some version of the “sudden emergency doctrine” (at least when it comes to medical emergencies) as an affirmative defense to negligence, some states do not, opting instead to use concepts like comparative negligence. If you’ve been involved in an incident in which the "sudden emergency" defense may come into play, it may be time to contact an experienced personal injury attorney, since so much rides on the application of this rule.

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