Defenses to Tort Liability: Sudden Emergency

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 What Is "Sudden Emergency" In a Personal Injury Claim?

Torts are civil wrongs. The tort of negligence, for example, is widely applied to establish the liability of a person who fails to exercise the care that a reasonably careful person would exercise in similar circumstances. The tort of negligence is the basis for imposing liability on people whose careless driving causes car accidents. The tort of negligence is also the basis for the liability of doctors who commit malpractice.

A person who has been the victim of another person’s negligence can sue the person whose negligence caused them harm to recover money damages. The person who files a lawsuit claiming negligence is the “plaintiff” in legal terminology. The person who was allegedly negligent in some manner is the “defendant”.

In order to prove negligence in a court of law, the plaintiff must produce evidence to show the following:

  • Duty of Care: The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  • Breach of Duty: The defendant breached their duty;
  • Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty caused harm and possibly injury to the plaintiff;
  • Damage: The plaintiff sustained economic loss because of the harm.

We all have a continuing duty to all people to exercise reasonable care for their physical safety, as well as the safety of their property. Certain relationships create a duty where it might not otherwise exist.

For example, certain professionals owe a duty of care to their clients; among these are doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects and engineers. Schools have a duty to protect their students from harm. Grocery stores have a duty to protect their customers from hazards in their stores and parking lots. A restaurant has a duty to provide food to its customers that will not cause them to become ill.

Construction contractors have a duty to clients, customers and the users of structures they build to exercise due care in their construction activities. Certain professionals have a duty to protect others, even to the point of rendering aid to others to keep them safe.

Most tort cases arise out of a negligence theory of liability. But there are intentional torts as well. Some examples of intentional torts are as follows:

  • Assault: Assault consists of an intentional act that causes a person to have the reasonable fear of an immediate harmful or offensive contact;
  • Battery: Battery is intentionally causing harmful or offensive contact with another person without that person’s consent;
  • False Imprisonment: A person commits false imprisonment when they restrain the freedom of movement of another person and confine that other person in a bounded area;
  • Conversion: The tort of conversion involves the wrongful interference with another person’s property by such acts as taking the property, using it or destroying it in a way that is inconsistent with the owner’s right of ownership or title to the goods;
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: This tort occurs when one person causes severe emotional distress to another person by intentionally or recklessly behaving in an “extreme and outrageous” way;
  • Fraud/Deceit: Fraud is the use of trickery, deceit, intentional misrepresentation, or concealment for the purpose of inducing another person to part with something of value. It also includes false representation of a fact verbally or through conduct or the concealment of what should be disclosed;
  • Trespass to Land and Property: Trespass occurs when a person intentionally enters another person’s property without permission;
  • Defamation: Defamation the oral or written communication of a false statement about a person that unfairly harms their reputation. .

With the exception of defamation, all of these torts can be crimes as well under certain circumstances.

Needless to say, a person who has been sued for tort liability, whether based on negligence or an intentional act, wants to find a defense in law that enables them to avoid liability. One possible defense is that of the sudden emergency.

The sudden emergency defense is an affirmative tort defense. In claiming the sudden emergency defense, the defendant asserts that they confronted an unexpected and sudden situation which demanded immediate response, and the defendant responded reasonably. If a jury believes that the defendant acted reasonably during the emergency, the defendant is not liable for the accident at all.

The elements of the sudden emergency doctrine are as follows:

  • A situation arose suddenly and unexpectedly;
  • The situation was not caused by any conduct on the part of the defendant;
  • The defendant acted reasonably in response to the sudden, unexpected situation.

The defendant must present evidence to show that the sudden emergency was in view for only a short time and was completely totally unexpected. The sudden emergency defense must be raised by the defendant as an affirmative defense before trial so as to give notice of it to the other side. Clearly, this is a defense that is most often used in cases involving motor vehicle accidents.

What Counts as a Sudden Emergency?

In discussing the sudden emergency defenses, the word “unexpected” key. If the defendant could have predicted that the situation would occur, the defense would not apply. For this reason, most weather conditions, such as icy roads or sun glares, are generally not considered sudden emergencies. Unexpected emergencies would be such events as children running into the street or other pedestrians veering onto a roadway without warning.

If a sudden illness or physical condition should strike a person suddenly and unexpectedly while they are driving their car, this could be a sudden emergency. If the illness makes it impossible for the person to control their car, it is not negligence. Or, the defense is often asserted when one driver unexpectedly changes lanes in front of a plaintiff’s vehicle; the plaintiff brakes suddenly and the defendant, driving behind the plaintiff, rear ends the plaintiff. A court or jury may well find that the defendant was not at fault in this situation.

Which States Use the Emergency Doctrine?

Most states recognize the sudden emergency defense, although some states have abolished it. The states of Louisiana, Georgia and Texas recognize the sudden emergency defense, but the state of Colorado has abandoned it.

The state of Maryland recognizes the defense if a driver is incapacitated by a sudden and unforeseen medical emergency. In this situation, the driver cannot be expected to respond reasonably to avoid a crash. That means the driver cannot be held liable for damages that may result from the crash.

In 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court declared that Colorado would no longer allow the sudden emergency doctrine. The Court expressed the belief that the doctrine was confusing and redundant. It is important to note that Colorado allows comparative negligence, making the emergency doctrine less useful in that state. A recent court opinion in Pennsylvania has cast the usefulness of the sudden emergency defense into question in that state.

Comparative negligence is a legal defense that reduces the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover in a negligence claim, based on the degree to which the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to causing their injury. This is not exactly a substitute for a sudden emergency, which would have no connection to any conduct on the part of the plaintiff. In other words, the sudden emergency defense is not about proving that the plaintiff caused the emergency.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Although the sudden emergency doctrine does not seem complicated, its application in certain cases can be challenging. Also, you want to know whether the defense is available in your state.

An experienced tort attorney in your area will be able to explain whether the defense is available in your state and could apply to your case.

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