Court of Appeals Clarifies Use of Sudden Emergency Instruction.

November 10, 2006

The Court of Appeals recently clarified the use of the Sudden Emergency Doctrine in Robinson v. Lansford, published. Robinson appealed from a judgment dismissing her complaint following a jury verdict in Lansford’’s favor. Robinson struck the rear of a car in front of her, causing her car to stop suddenly. Lansford was behind Robinson and was unable to stop his car, striking Robinson in the rear. Robinson claimed the trial court erred by including a sudden emergency qualification in its instructions.

The Court noted:

The common-law doctrine of “‘sudden emergency”’ attempts to explain to a jury how to judge the allegedly negligent conduct of a person, plaintiff or defendant, who is suddenly confronted with an emergency situation that allows no time for deliberation. The doctrine should be applied if it changes or modifies a duty that would have been incumbent upon a plaintiff or defendant in the absence of the emergency. However, we believe that ““[t]his case does not present a sudden emergency, only a sudden occurrence”” as the evidence does not indicate that Lansford took any action as a result of encountering an emergency. . . . Rather, Lansford was ““presented with a sudden occurrence that may have resulted in his inability to avoid the collision . . . regardless of his previous exercise of ordinary care.””

The Court concluded; “[T]he real question for the jury to decide in this case was ““whether or not the Robinson car had given sufficient warning of its sudden stop in order for Lansford to have avoided a collision, provided Lansford was using due care.”” It found that the giving of a sudden emergency instruction erroneously qualified Lansford’’s duties, which constituted reversible error.

The Court of Appeals correctly noted that “sudden emergency” doesn’t mean necessarily what it says. Although Lansford was confronted with what could be termed a “sudden emergency” that is not alone grounds for the instruction. The emergency must change or modify a duty that a person otherwise would have absent the emergency. The best example is a driver who is confronted with a sudden emergency who changes into another lane striking a car in that lane. The sudden emergency instruction allows the jury to take into consideration the “reason” why the driver breached his duty to remain in his lane. Without such a qualification, the driver would be negligent as a matter of law for encroaching into the other lane.

In the typical rear end accident case, the sudden stopping, although perhaps an emergency, is just one of many factors to consider in determining if the person breached his legal duty. It does not excuse the breach by qualifying that duty.

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