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Can a Long-Term Illness Cause a “Sudden Emergency”?

In Georgia, a defendant in a personal injury case arising from a car accident may argue what is known as the “sudden emergency” defense. Put simply, this means the defendant alleges he or she was presented with a sudden emergency and had insufficient time to react. If this was the case, the sudden emergency relieves the defendant of any and all liability for any accident arising from the sudden emergency.

Woodard v. Dempsey

The key to this defense is that the defendant could not have reasonably foreseen the emergency—otherwise it is not really a “sudden” emergency. An ongoing federal lawsuit in Atlanta illustrates how factual disputes over whether a defendant has alleged an actual emergency may arise.

The accident itself took place in Marietta in March 2014. The defendant was passing through Georgia during an interstate trip from Ohio to Florida. While approaching an intersection, the defendant said he “was physically unable to lift his right foot off the accelerator,” according to court records. To avoid hitting the cars in front of him, the defendant said he “swerved” off the road onto a grassy area on the right side of the highway.

But this ended up making things worse. The defendant’s vehicle struck a signpost on the side of the road and he “lost control.” The vehicle continued to move forward and eventually “went airborne.” Tragically, the defendant’s vehicle landed on top of the passenger side of a truck, killing the passenger and seriously injuring the driver. (The deceased passenger was the truck driver’s daughter.)

The victims subsequently filed a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant in Georgia state court. The defendant, who is not a Georgia resident, had the case transferred to federal court. The defendant then moved for summary judgment in his favor, arguing that the inability to lift his leg was a “sudden emergency” that absolved him of any liability for the accident.

In an August 1 order, the judge presiding over the case denied the motion. While an “illness” can be construed as an “act of God”—and therefore a “sudden emergency”—the evidence in this case suggested the defendant was not faced with an unforeseeable. The judge noted that the defendant has a medical condition called polymyositis, which is a “is an uncommon inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness affecting both sides of your body,” according to the Mayo Clinic. The defendant acknowledged during pretrial discovery that “he has noticed a worsening of his leg problems” over the past five years. Given this information, a jury might conclude that the defendant’s inability to lift his foot off of the accelerator—the event that initiated the chain reaction leading to the victim’s injuries—was a “foreseeable” consequence of the defendant’s long-term medical problems, and not a “sudden emergency.”

The judge also noted the defendant also entered a guilty plea in Georgia state court on charges of “failure to maintain lane” in connection with the accident. Under Georgia law, violating a state traffic regulation is considered prima facie evidence of negligence. While this does not conclusively establish the defendant’s liability in a subsequent personal injury lawsuit, the judge here said it offered yet another reason to deny the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.