What Is a Sudden Emergency in a Car Accident Case in Virginia?

Deer jumping in front of car causing sudden emergency accident.

Most car crashes are referred to as accidents. That’s because, in most cases, these collisions could have been prevented if someone acted with greater care on the road.

However, there are times when drivers genuinely may not be able to avoid a wreck, no matter how carefully they were observing traffic laws. Typically, these crashes occur when the driver is reacting to a sudden, unforeseeable hazard or medical emergency, leaving them unable to prevent a collision.

Recognizing that these cases do happen, Virginia courts have held that plaintiffs in car accident lawsuits can use the sudden emergency defense to avoid being held liable for injuries and other crash-related losses.

Were you involved in a car wreck and not sure if it qualifies as a sudden emergency? Talk to a Richmond car accident lawyer at Marks & Harrison today. With nine offices throughout Virginia, our experienced team of attorneys can investigate your case and determine your legal options.

Call or contact us today for a free consultation.

What Is the Sudden Emergency Defense, and How Does it Work?

When someone files a lawsuit against another driver after a car crash, the person who filed the suit (known as the plaintiff) has the burden of proof. This means that they must show that the other driver was at-fault (negligent) for the collision. One of the ways that the person being sued (the defendant) may be able to shield themselves from liability is to employ the sudden emergency defense.

The gist of the sudden emergency defense is that someone cannot be held liable for their actions if they were reacting to a situation beyond their control.  Did the Defendant react in the same way as any reasonable person?

Emergency situations often call for a driver to act quickly and decisively without much time for deliberation, which can inadvertently cause a crash. Virginia courts have stated that in these circumstances, a defendant can essentially be forgiven for their actions because they had no choice and little time to react.

There’s a similar defense that defendants can employ in a car accident lawsuit if an unforeseen health problem results in a crash. It’s known as the sudden medical emergency defense.

The principle for the sudden medical emergency defense is essentially the same as with the sudden emergency defense: If you are incapacitated by a sudden medical emergency that leads to a car accident, you may not be considered negligent depending on the facts of the case.

There are two important caveats to understand regarding both of these defenses. The first is that if a defendant raises either of the emergency defenses, the burden of proof shifts to them, meaning they have to show that they had no chance to avoid the accident due to the sudden emergency.

The second point is that the sudden emergency must have been unexpected and unforeseeable. For example, if you know you are epileptic and had a seizure behind the wheel because you stopped taking your medication, the sudden medical emergency defense would not apply because you knew about your condition and ignored the possible danger.

Reasonable Conduct Under the Circumstances

An element that is critical to the success of both the Virginia sudden emergency defense and the sudden medical emergency defense is that the defendant must have acted as a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances.

Basically, this means that the defendant must have taken the best, most reasonable steps that an ordinarily prudent person would have done if confronted with the same situation.

The facts of the case are crucial for any defendant who tries to employ the sudden emergency or sudden medical emergency defense. For example, if a defendant was driving and a deer jumped out in front of the car without warning, the defendant could have a good case under the sudden emergency defense.

However, if a rabbit jumped in front of the vehicle, it would be hard to successfully employ the sudden emergency doctrine. A rabbit is not large enough to do any significant damage to a car. It will be up to a judge or jury to determine whether the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances.

This same principle is true for defendants who use the sudden medical emergency defense. If a defendant in otherwise healthy condition had an unforeseen seizure, with no history of epilepsy, then the sudden medical emergency defense would likely apply. However, if the defendant was diagnosed with epilepsy and had been warned not to drive, the sudden medical emergency defense would not be applicable and the driver could be held liable for any injuries and losses caused by the crash.

How Do You Know If the Sudden Emergency Defense Applies?

In most cases, it’s difficult to know for certain whether you can use the sudden emergency or sudden medical emergency defense. You must be able to show that the emergency was both unexpected and unavoidable, which will require strong and compelling evidence.

To give your case the best chance of success, you need to work with a skilled Virginia car accident lawyer. The state has some of the harshest negligence laws in the nation. Hiring a top attorney can protect your rights and prevent you from being held liable for a crash that was truly unpreventable.

Getting Results and Justice Is Our Business — Contact Us Today

With 26 proven attorneys and more than 100 support staff, Marks & Harrison has the resources and experience needed to handle complex injury cases throughout Virginia.

To learn more about how we can help you after a car accident, call or contact us for a free consultation.

Born and raised in Hanover County, Virginia, John attended Virginia Tech for his undergraduate degree and The University of Richmond Law School for his Juris Doctor. He is the author of numerous legal publications and is a member of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Area Bar Associations as well as the Christian Legal Society, Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, American Association for Justice, and the Lewis F. Powell Jr. American Inn of Court. John recently served as General Counsel for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association which primarily involved lobbying the General Assembly on behalf of personal injury attorneys and their clients.