Tidd v. Kroshus – Sudden Emergency Doctrine Defense

Drivers on public roads are required to use reasonable care in the operation of their motor vehicle. “Reasonable care” is the degree of caution or concern for the safety of others that a rational or ordinarily prudent person would use the same or similar circumstances.
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One notable exception to this is the “sudden emergency doctrine.” Though the language of the doctrine may vary slightly from state-to-state, the general idea is that when a person, through no fault of her own, is placed in a sudden emergency while driving, he or she won’t be expected to exercise the same degree of care that a reasonably careful person would have exercised had the emergency not arisen. It’s essentially a less stringent standard of care.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals weighed in on this issue several years ago in the 2007 case of Sobczak v. Vorholt, the court determined the two elements that have to be satisfied in order for the doctrine to be applied are:

  • An emergency situation exists or arises that requires immediate action to avoid injury;
  • The emergency must not have been created by the negligence of the party seeking protection from the doctrine.

The court ruled it’s improper to consider the sudden emergency doctrine unless there is evidence of a sudden, unforeseeable change in conditions to which driver must respond quickly to avoid injury.

There have been numerous tests to this theory. In North Dakota recently, a motor vehicle driver who struck a bicyclists crossing the threshold of an alley argued that the sudden appearance of the bicyclist was a “sudden emergency.” Buildings on either side of the alley blocked his view of the sidewalk in either direction. He claimed it was dark and he was driving with his headlights on and the cyclist wasn’t wearing any reflectors or bike lights. Cyclist challenged these assertions, saying the area was well-lit and she was wearing bright clothing and reflectors.

Trial court allowed an instruction to be sent to the jury on “sudden emergency,” even as plaintiff argued there was no evidence driver had encountered a sudden, unforeseeable change.

Taking this into consideration, jurors found in favor of defendant, finding him not liable for cyclist’s injuries.

On appeal, the North Dakota Supreme Court noted that not every unexpected occurrence on the road is a “sudden emergency.” And in this case, according to defendant’s own testimony, the court noted, the emergency was the bicycle accident itself. The fact that he didn’t see the cyclist prior to the collision is not the same thing as confronting a dangerous situation prior to the collision. Rather, what driver encountered as an ordinary risk one might assume when driving through an alley and encountered a bicyclist or pedestrian crossing.

The court noted a factually similar case out of Oregon where the appeals court in 1993 ruled there was no “sudden emergency” when a bicyclist was struck by a vehicle driven by a person who didn’t see the bicyclist prior to the crash.

This was, the court stated, an ordinary traffic accident, and the instruction on sudden emergency was improper.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Tidd v. Kroshus, Oct. 15, 2015, North Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Drugged Driving a Real Danger on North Carolina Roads, Oct. 9, 2015, Winston-Salem Car Accident Attorney Blog

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