Motor vehicle accidents are by their very nature difficult-to-predict. In some cases, a sudden and unexpected emergency can influence the ability of the defendant to predict the consequences of their actions and avoid an accident.
For example, imagine a situation in which the defendant-driver is operating their vehicle on the highway and has a heart attack. The driver — battling the sudden pain, spasms, and general loss of body control inflicted by the heart attack — swerves into your lane and collides with your vehicle, causing you to suffer significant injuries.
Can you recover damages?
There isn’t a simple yes-or-no answer that applies to all “sudden emergency” scenarios in the motor vehicle context, unfortunately. Whether you can recover damages in a situation involving a sudden emergency is dependent largely on the circumstances at-issue — and more specifically, whether the driver acted with reasonable care given the emergency.
Have you been involved in an accident and suffered injuries as a result? You may be able to sue the defendant and obtain compensation, pursuant to Arizona law. In the personal injury context, the person responsible for your injuries can make use of a number of defenses to escape liability. To ensure that your claims are effectively litigated, make sure to consult with an experienced Arizona motor vehicle accident lawyer so that your lawsuit can be properly evaluated and filed.
Arizona applies what is known as the “sudden emergency” doctrine to cases in which the defendant is rendered incapable of reacting in a safe and reasonable manner to the circumstances. Generally speaking, Arizona does not treat the sudden emergency doctrine as its own separate doctrine, and instead applies its reasoning to the interdependent issues of standard of care and negligence that lie at the heart of a motor vehicle accident claim.
To put it in simpler terms: Arizona courts do not view the sudden emergency doctrine as a separate and independent rule. The presence of a sudden emergency is simply a factor in the consideration of the total circumstances.
Standard of Care and the Sudden Emergency Doctrine
Defendant-drivers may be held liable for violating the standard of care. The standard of care is a relative concept that changes dynamically based on the circumstances. For example, the standard of care required of drivers in a school zone or in the parking lot of a hospital is likely to be higher than the standard of care required of drivers operating a vehicle on abandoned property. There are a number of factors that influence the standard of care: the driver’s age, the condition of the roadway (i.e., visibility), the condition of the vehicle, the training and experience of the driver, and more.
How does the sudden emergency doctrine work, then?
Essentially, if the defendant finds themselves in a sudden emergency situation, then they may argue that the standard of care was lower — given the emergency circumstances — and that their actions therefore did not violate the standard of care. Emergency circumstances are those that require “rapid action” and that do not allow the defendant to make a deliberate and well-considered decision.
If you are suing the defendant-driver, and they claim to have had a heart attack at the time of the accident, for example, then your attorney will likely investigate the nature of the heart attack and its severity. If the heart attack was minor, and circumstances were such that the defendant could have safely moved their vehicle to the side and come to a stop, then it will have an effect on their liability. Further, the presence of a sudden emergency will not shield the defendant from liability when they have negligently created a dangerous situation. For example, if the defendant-driver had a heart attack, but was driving dangerously above the speed limit on a local road, then their inability to safely maneuver and avoid a collision during the sudden emergency may have been affected by their excessive speed.