Court: Auto Insurance Still Required Despite Driver’s Sudden Emergency

The sudden emergency doctrine is a defense that can be raised in North Carolina car accidents lawsuits. If proven, it lowers the duty of care a person owes, as long as the sudden emergency wasn’t caused by the driver’s own negligence. The North Carolina Court of Appeals outlined the applicability of the doctrine in the 1995 case of Holbrook v. Henleybus

In Henley, the court held that if a vehicle driver is suddenly placed in an emergency situation – not of his or her own negligence – and is compelled to act instantly to avoid a collision or injury, he or she won’t be liable for negligence if they are acting as a person with ordinary prudence would if placed in a similar situation. This offers a defense even if the choice ultimately made isn’t the wisest choice or one that would have been required in the exercise of ordinary care but for the emergency. In other words, a driver can’t be judged according to the standard of ordinary care. Instead, the reasonableness of the driver’s actions will be judged in light of the emergency.

In a recent case before the Utah Supreme Court, the incident in question was a bus crash that happened when a driver carrying a Utah high school band swerved off an Idaho interstate and crashed on its side. One teacher was killed, and numerous students were seriously injured. Two students were transported to a hospital by helicopter, another dozen by ambulance, and 30 by bus. The driver, who was also a school bus driver, was working at the time for a private motor carrier. No drugs or alcohol were found in her system, and she apparently suffered a medical emergency that caused her to “black out” behind the wheel.

The law in Utah requires auto insurance carriers to extend coverage for damages or injuries that result from an insured driver who suffers a sudden and unforeseeable incapacity. The state supreme court ruled that this provision imposes strict liability on an insured driver and limits the driver’s liability to the coverage of the applicable insurance policy.

Here, several of the injured passengers filed state lawsuits, seeking damages for their injuries. Two of the passengers sought summary judgment on the issue of the strict liability of the bus carrier’s insurer. The trial court rejected this motion, instead holding the sudden incapacity defense would shield the bus driver and the insurer from liability for a sudden loss of consciousness, and injured parties could only recover if they could show fault. Appeals on that matter are pending.

Meanwhile, the bus driver’s insurer filed a separate lawsuit, seeking a declaratory judgment that would reinforce the conclusion of the trial court – that the common-law “sudden incapacity defense” would require proof of liability in order to secure a judgment, even though state law requires insurers to cover damages resulting from the sudden and unforeseeable incapacity of a driver.

The federal court then certified questions to the Utah Supreme Court. Specifically, the justices were asked to decide whether state law imposes strict liability on insured drivers for damages to third parties resulting from a driver’s unforeseeable loss of consciousness, and if so, whether a driver’s liability is limited by the applicable insurance policy or by the applicable minimum statutory limit.

The state supreme court ruled:

  • State law requiring insurance coverage in the event of sudden driver incapacity overrules the common-law doctrine of sudden incapacity, which means insurers are strictly liable in these types of car accidents;
  • Drivers and insurers are subject to liability only up to the amount of insurance coverage available under the policy.

In a nutshell, in spite of what the Utah trial court ruled, insurers in that state are strictly liable when an insured driver is suddenly incapacitated behind the wheel, but they can only be forced to pay up to the maximum amount on the policy.

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

Additional Resources:

Lancer Insurance Co. v. Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines, Inc., Feb. 15, 2017, Utah Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Passenger Run Over by Friend Can Proceed With Injury Lawsuit, Feb. 22, 2017, Greenville Injury Lawyer Blog

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