What Is the “Sudden Emergency” Doctrine?

According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people in the U.S. died in car accidents in 2017 alone. The physical, emotional, and financial costs of car accidents can take an extreme toll on anyone – and if you are involved in a collision, both you and the at-fault party will have to determine the cause of the accident when engaging in legal action.

Many people involved in car accidents describe them happening very quickly. Sudden, split-second decisions and events can lead to catastrophic injuries and even death. When you are entering a personal injury lawsuit regarding a car accident, the at-fault party may use the sudden emergency reaction as a defense. How can you defend yourself against this claim and receive the compensation you need to recover?

Definition of the Sudden Emergency Doctrine

The sudden emergency doctrine is a defense that an at-fault party can use to invalidate your claim of injury. When you initiate a personal injury lawsuit, your attorney will have to prove that the at-fault driver owed you a duty of care, breached that duty through negligent driving, and this negligence caused your injuries.

Through this defense, the at-fault party will claim that he or she was acting in response to a sudden emergency that needed an immediate response. Three elements need to be present to successfully use the sudden emergency doctrine:

  • Proof that the defendant encountered a sudden and unexpected situation.
  • Proof that the defendant did not cause this situation.
  • Proof that the defendant acted reasonably during this situation.

If a child ran out into the street, for example, and the defendant swerved to miss the child and hit your car, the courts will accept the sudden emergency doctrine as a defense. At-fault drivers can use many other situations as sudden emergencies that are not actually sudden emergencies.

Examples of Sudden Emergency

To determine if an incident constitutes a sudden emergency, the defendant will need to prove that the situation was indeed sudden and unexpected. If the at-fault party could have reasonably predicted the situation, it is not a sudden emergency. For example, icy roads during the winter are not sudden emergencies, because you can reasonably predict ice on the roads. Weather conditions are usually not permissible as sudden emergencies.

Acceptable sudden emergencies include various types of situations.

  • Unexpected pedestrians or children
  • Animals running into the street
  • Objects suddenly falling into the street or onto the car
  • Suffering a heart attack, seizure, or other unexpected medical emergency while driving, as long as a doctor has not told the defendant that he or she cannot drive due to the condition

Current Oregon Law Regarding the Sudden Emergency Doctrine

Oregon does recognize the sudden emergency doctrine under certain circumstances. If the at-fault driver experienced a medical emergency, such as a loss of consciousness, he or she cannot receive a negligence charge. The medical emergency must not be foreseeable; if the driver was driving against medical advice, he or she cannot use the doctrine.

In addition, the Oregon Supreme Court case, Bjorndal vs. Weitman, requires a jury to consider how a reasonable person would act in the emergency situation and compare the actions of the at-fault driver to that standard. If the jury finds discrepancies, the defense will likely not be considered valid. Much of the debate about the sudden emergency rule revolves around when it is appropriate for a judge to instruct a jury to take the rule into consideration, rather than allowing the usual rules of negligence to determine the outcome of the case. The interpretation of the sudden emergency doctrine is an evolving area of personal injury law.