California Sudden Emergency Doctrine

If one driver crashes into another in California, liability may be clear. The driver who broke a roadway rule, failed to yield the right-of-way or negligently caused the collision will be responsible for the wreck. There could be an important exception, however, if the driver uses California’s sudden emergency doctrine.

What Is the Sudden Emergency Doctrine?

All motor vehicle operators have a legal duty to drive safely, carefully and prudently. This duty of care includes responding correctly to emergencies, such as a tire blowout. In California, a somewhat controversial doctrine may protect an at-fault driver from liability for an auto accident if the driver experienced an emergency. The sudden emergency doctrine, also called the doctrine of imminent peril, protects defendants from facing consequences for a collision if certain conditions apply.

  1. The driver experienced a physical illness or emergency while driving.
  2. The physical illness or emergency prevented the driver from controlling his or her automobile.
  3. The driver did not cause the emergency or peril.
  4. The driver had no reason to know of the physical illness or emergency prior to its occurrence.
  5. The driver reacted to the emergency as a reasonable and careful person would have in the same circumstances.

The emergency must be sudden and unexpected for the driver to be protected from liability. The emergency must have also put the driver or another person in apparent danger of immediate injury. The many limitations on the sudden emergency doctrine make it an uncommon defense strategy during car accident cases. Unfortunately, it is something that an at-fault driver’s insurance company may try to use to avoid paying for an injured victim’s damages.

Does the Sudden Emergency Doctrine Apply to Your Case?

Examples of sudden emergencies include heart attack, stroke, allergic reaction, a tire blowout, a child darting out into the street, something falling from another driver’s truck or something blocking a driver’s windshield. These circumstances could constitute sudden, unexpected and dangerous emergencies that force a driver to react.

If the driver reacts by slamming on the brakes, crossing multiple lanes of traffic, changing lanes without looking, jerking the wheel or stopping in the middle of the road, the driver might not be liable for a resultant accident if a prudent driver would have reacted the same way – even if a different action would have been safer.

California’s sudden emergency doctrine might apply to your car accident case if you or your lawyer can prove that you experienced an unexpected, unforeseeable emergency and that you reacted appropriately to the said emergency. Your lawyer will need to prove that you had no reason to anticipate the emergency, such as a known medical condition or poor vehicle maintenance on your part. Only then may you avoid liability for the automobile accident.

When to Contact a Car Accident Attorney

If you are trying to hold someone responsible for causing your accident and that person is asserting the sudden emergency defense, a lawyer can search for evidence against the at-fault driver on your behalf. Your lawyer can review the driver’s medical history, talk to eyewitnesses, analyze police reports, revisit the crash scene and take other steps to try to prove the other driver’s liability. Your lawyer’s goal will be to establish that the emergency was foreseeable and/or preventable, or that the driver reacted to the emergency in an unreasonable way. Either argument could place liability with the other driver for your injuries and losses.

It can be wise to seek legal guidance after any car accident in Sacramento. If the other driver experienced an emergency behind the wheel and is using the sudden emergency defense, however, hiring an attorney can be even more important. This is a rarely used doctrine that can be difficult to prove. If successful, however, the defendant may not be found liable for your damages. Your lawyer can help you fight for the compensation you deserve from an at-fault driver so you can finally move forward.