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Sudden Emergency / Unexpected Medical Emergency Doctrines in Automobile Cases

The courts are urged not to confuse sudden emergency with unforeseen medical emergency. Shiner v. Ralston, 64 A.3d 1 (Pa. Super. 2013) resulted in the reversal of summary judgment for a defendant. The court granted summary judgment based upon the fact that defendant died at the wheel. The court said that the medical records were not so clear that summary judgment should have been granted. In Shiner, the court held that it was possible that defendant was aware of his medical condition and therefore should not have been driving or was negligent to drive.

The unforeseen medical emergency doctrine appears to have been tightened in Pennsylvania by this decision. The assumption is that when a person is unconscious and unable to act, he is incapable of negligence. Unforeseeable loss of consciousness, if proven, is a complete defense to negligence and the defendant bears the burden of establishing the defense. The defense must be pled in new matter.

By contrast, the sudden emergency doctrine in Pennsylvania is not an affirmative defense. It is a legal principle that provides that an individual will not be held to the usual degree of care or be required to exercise his or her best judgment when confronted with a sudden and unexpected position of parallel created in whole or in part by someone other than the person claiming protection under the doctrine.

Pennsylvania courts have acknowledged the “sudden emergency doctrine” as a relevant defense in determining whether a driver was negligent in an automobile accident. Lockhart v. List, 665 A.2d 1176 (Pa. 1995). The “sudden emergency doctrine” recognizes that a driver, who, although driving in a prudent manner, is confronted with a sudden or unexpected event which little or no time to comprehend a situation and act accordingly should not be subject to liability simply because another perhaps more prudent course was available. Under Pennsylvania law, an unexpected event can be some object that suddenly moves into the driver’s path where there is nothing that the driver can do to avoid a collision.

If you have been injured in an automobile accident and think you may have a claim, contact Cliff Rieders, Esq. of the Rieders Travis Law Firm.