Car Accidents and the Sudden Emergency Doctrine

Insurance Company Denies Liability Based On Sudden Emergency

Let us assume that you have had a car accident in Georgia and you call the at-fault driver’s car insurance company and they tell you they are not responsible for the crash because it was the result of a “sudden emergency.” What the heck is that? How do I fight it?

Georgia law defines a sudden emergency as a sudden danger caused without the defendant’s contribution and which forced them to choose a course of action without sufficient time for thought such that if they act negligently, it is only because of the lack of time to pick the wisest path. Matheson v. Stilkenboom, 251 Ga.App. 693, 696 (2001).

Typically the defendant wants to have the jury charged on the doctrine of sudden emergency because it allows their lawyer to argue the crash was not their fault because they did not have enough time to react. It reads that a person is not negligent if they act according to their best interest or in the most apparently judicious manner due to insufficient time to deal with the situation in a reasoned manner. Beringause v. Fogleman Truck Lines 200 Ga. App. 822 (1991)

A good example of the use of the defense can be found in the case of Maxineau v. King. There, the defendant swore he was driving in an open lane of traffic when a car merged in front of him from the on-ramp and suddenly hit the brakes.  Maxineau had to choose between hitting the car in front or switching lanes to the left to hit King’s truck. Even though King had a totally different story about how the crash occurred, the Judge was obligated to give the jury the charge and to leave it to the jurors to decide what story is more believable.

One way in which the defense pops up is with wildlife in the roadway, such as a deer. We represented the widow of a preacher who died when a schoolteacher was driving home and swerved to avoid the deer. She swerved into the oncoming land and killed the driver coming in the other direction. The insurance carrier wanted to argue sudden emergency, an act of God, but because we were able to show that the deer did not actually make contact, there was still a strong liability argument that the driver simply overreacted to the situation. Remember that the core concept here is time and reaction. The less time to react, the less judgmental a jury will be. The more time to react, the more likely they will be to hold you to a normal negligence standard.

Another area that you will see the defense pop up in is where the insurance company wants to argue that the defendant driver had a sudden medical emergency. We often see this with diabetic episodes and other random syncope episodes. The key here is the medical history of the driver. If they have truly never had a heart attack before and one hits them out of the blue, then yes, there is no negligence and the cause of the crash was a sudden emergency. Often that is not the case and the insurance company has to sort through the defendant driver often claiming that the medical condition was unknown.

What about the diabetes situation? It does not matter that this is the first time you blacked out. What matters is you were put on notice that if you do not monitor your blood sugar, you are taking the chance that you will crash your car. That, in an of itself, is a separate act of negligence.

If you are speaking with an insurance adjuster on a Georgia car accident and they start talking about the sudden emergency doctrine, be on your toes and call an auto accident lawyer in Atlanta to go over the facts.