Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Sudden Emergency Doctrine Definition:

A principle of tort law which alleviates the standard of care in emergency circumstances.

"The sudden emergency doctrine provides that "[a] person who, through no fault of his or her own, is placed in a sudden emergency, is not chargeable with negligence if the person exercises that degree of care which a reasonably careful person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances."

These were the words of Justice David Furman of the Colorado Court of Appeals in McClintic v Hesse.

The standard of care, wrapped up in the mystical creature of law known as the reasonable person, necessarily changes when unexpected, sudden emergency situations occur and which have nothing to do with the conduct of the alleged tortfeasor.

In that context, the excitement and danger of the moment calls for a unique standard of care.

moose on roadIn Estate of Gordon Ferguson v. MacLeod & MacLeod, Justice Armand DesRoches of the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island adopted these words at ¶76:

"[F]aced with a sudden emergency for the creation of which the driver is not responsible, he cannot be held to a standard of conduct which one sitting in the calmness of a courtroom later might determine was the best course.1

"The sudden emergency doctrine, or agony of collision rule, illustrates the basic proposition that the standard of care is that degree of care which would have been taken by the reasonable person in like circumstances. Since negligence law does not guarantee the safety of others, but only assures them that they will be compensated for injuries caused by unreasonable conduct, errors in judgment which do not qualify as being negligent are permitted. The significance of the sudden emergency doctrine is that it will permit a person who is faced with a sudden emergency to make a choice which would not have been acceptable in a non-emergency situation, and in retrospect, was not the best choice of those available."

The case of Sobczak v Vorholt involved a motor vehicle accident in freezing, snowy conditions. It was the occasion for Justice Stephens of the Court of Appeals of North Carolina to write:

"The sudden emergency doctrine provides that one confronted with an emergency is not liable for an injury resulting from his acting as a reasonable man might act in such an emergency.

"Two elements must be satisfied before the sudden emergency doctrine applies: (1) an emergency situation must exist requiring immediate action to avoid injury, and (2) the emergency must not have been created by the negligence of the party seeking the protection of the doctrine.

"As for the first element of the sudden emergency doctrine, an emergency situation has been defined by our courts as that which compels defendant to act instantly to avoid a collision or injury. The second element prohibits application of this doctrine where the sudden emergency was caused, at least in part, by defendant's negligence in failing to maintain the proper lookout or speed in light of the roadway conditions at the time. Moreover, a sudden emergency instruction is improper absent evidence of a sudden and unforeseeable change in conditions to which the driver must respond to avoid injury."

 The previous year, his colleague, Chief Justice Martin of the same court had written, in Carrington v Emory:

"The doctrine of sudden emergency, however, "provides a less stringent standard of care for one who, through no fault of his own, is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with imminent danger to himself or others."

North Carolina courts have no monopoly on the articulation of the doctrine. In Vantran Industries, the District Court of Appeal of Florida held:

"The sudden emergency doctrine requires (1) that the claimed emergency actually or apparently existed; (2) that the perilous situation was not created or contributed to by the person confronted; (3) that alternative courses of action in meeting the emergency were open to such person; and (4) that the action or course taken was such as would or might have been taken by a person of reasonable prudence in the same or similar situation.

"The presence or absence of a sudden emergency situation is a question of fact... So, too, is the issue of whether, under the circumstances, the defendant reacted to the situation in a prudent manner...."

 Or this, from the pen of Justice Johnson of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky:

"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."2



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