When Medical Emergencies Cause South Carolina Crashes

Some of the more complicated car accident liability cases are those in which the crash was caused by an individual who suffered a medical condition.
Our Rock Hill car accident attorneys are tending to see these kinds of cases more frequently, as the population overall ages and become at higher risk for sudden medical emergencies behind the wheel, such as strokes, heart attacks or aneurysms.

In South Carolina, such incidents constitute a “sudden emergency,” which can be the basis for a valid defense in a negligence case. However, even in situations where a driver has legitimately suffered some type of medical condition that preceded the crash, that doesn’t necessarily mean the plaintiff is without remedy.

First of all, many of these claims will be settled out-of-court, long before trial. But if the case does make it to the trial phase, a judge may not dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the basis of a sudden emergency defense. Rather, he or she may submit to the jury that they should consider the sudden emergency in determining negligence or the degree of negligence.

A finding of sudden emergency may limit a defendant’s liability, but it may not eliminate it altogether.

A sudden emergency is defined broadly by South Carolina courts as, “a sudden or unexpected event or combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action.”

The recent case of Hagenow v. Schmidt, reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court, offers some insight into how civil courts handle these types of claims (though bear in mind, laws can vary from state-to-state).

In this case, the court revisited the doctrine of legal excuse and the sudden emergency defense, as applied to a rear-end collision.

According to the plaintiff, his truck was stopped at a red light when the defendant’s car struck him from behind. The defendant, a 75-year-old woman, denied ever seeing the plaintiff’s car, and a medical examination did later corroborate her story that a stroke had effectively rendered her blind in one eye. Still, she was cited by the responding traffic officer for failing to maintain assured clear distance.

It wasn’t until the defendant was in the hospital emergency room that she realized she was unable to see a medical staffer who was speaking to her on her left side. Medical staff were alerted to this, and it was determined that she had suffered a stroke, which resulted in obstruction to her vision.

The obstruction to her vision was permanent, and rendered her henceforth unable to maintain a driver’s license.

The driver’s rehabilitation doctor indicated that she likely suffered a stroke while driving, which was probably what caused the crash.

The defendant’s treating neurologist initially reported that he could not with medical certainty whether the stroke occurred before, during or after the crash. However, he later would indicate in a sworn affidavit that it was his professional opinion the stroke occurred prior to the crash.

Over the objection of the plaintiff, the court allowed this testimony, as well as the submission of a sudden emergency defense.

In the end, the jury found the defendant was not negligent (and therefore not liable for damages).

Upon appeal, the appellate court found that while the evidence supported a defense of legal excuse, the case was remanded for faulty instructions to the jury on sudden emergency.

The state supreme court was asked to conduct a review, which it did, finding that the district court acted within discretion in allowing the defendant’s neurologist to testify in court. The court further determined that any error in the instructions to the jury on sudden emergency were harmless.

While this case had a disappointing conclusion for the plaintiff in this case, not every crash preceded by a medical emergency ends this way. It is worth it to explore your options with an experienced injury attorney before concluding whether to move forward with an injury lawsuit.

If you have been injured in a car accident, contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hagenow v. Schmidt, Feb. 7, 2014, Iowa Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Dealing with Hospital Liens and Medical Bills an Important Task for Experienced Injury Attorney, Feb. 8, 2014, Rock Hill Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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