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May 21, 2020
Two recent Court of Appeals opinions shed light on what does, and what does not, constitute a “sudden emergency” defense to automobile negligence in Michigan.
Michigan law has long recognized a “sudden emergency” defense exists where there is evidence from which a jury could conclude that a party was confronted with a situation that was unusual (meaning varying from the everyday traffic routine confronting a motorist) or unsuspected (meaning appearing so suddenly that the normal expectations of due care are modified). Young v Flood, 182 Mich App 538; 452 NW2d 869 (1990). It is essential that the potential peril had not been in clear view for any significant length of time. Vander Laan v Miedema, 385 Mich 226, 232; 188 NW2d 564 (1971). The emergency must have been “totally unexpected” and “not of the [the defendant’s] own making.” Id. at 231-232.
In one of the two recent opinions, Price v Austin, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition to a defendant truck driver who suffered a blackout, causing his semi to cross into the oncoming lane and strike the plaintiff’s vehicle. In affirming summary disposition, the Court of Appeals held that the defendant had presented “ample evidence” that he experienced a blackout without advance notice sufficient to overcome the presumption of negligence that arises from crossing lanes into oncoming traffic. Importantly, the Court’s affirmance of summary disposition turned on the plaintiff’s failure to present evidence to show that the truck driver could have done anything different to avoid the accident.
The opinion is noteworthy for the fact that the situation in Price was remarkably similar to the facts of White v Taylor Distrib Co, 482 Mich 136 (2008) (White II), where the Michigan Supreme Court reversed summary disposition for a defendant truck driver who had likewise suffered a sudden blackout while driving. There the Supreme Court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether or not the blackout was “totally unexpected.” The Court focused on the driver’s testimony that shortly before the accident he had stopped at a rest stop because he had experienced a “severe episode of diarrhea” and, after relieving himself, he continued on his way. The Court emphasized that this could constitute evidence that the “defendant was aware he was not feeling well, but chose to continue driving….” Contrast this with the facts of Price, in which the defendant suffered an episode of severe coughing just prior to blacking out.
If we can draw a relevant distinction between the facts of Price and those of White II that resulted in the disparate holdings, it is the differing proximity between the onset of symptoms and the onset of the syncopal episodes in the two cases. Read together, they suggest that in order for a medical emergency to constitute a sudden emergency the evidence sufficient for defendant to prevail on summary disposition must demonstrate that there was essentially no time between the onset of symptoms and the medical emergency that resulted in the accident.
In the other recent opinion, Headworth v Kemp, the Court of Appeals reversed a judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s case following a jury trial in which the trial court had instructed the jury on the sudden emergency defense. There the defendant driver had failed to stop at a stop sign, causing him to strike the plaintiff’s vehicle in the intersection. The defendant argued that the sudden emergency defense barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim because foliage had obstructed his view of the stop sign and also because, just prior to entering the intersection, his dog had jumped from the backseat, over the center console, and onto the passenger side floor, distracting him.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine. The Court held that the defendant’s dog’s movement did not constitute a sudden emergency as a matter of law, even though defendant testified that it was completely unexpected. This, the Court held, was because the dog’s movement itself did not cause any emergency to which the defendant was required to respond. In other words, the event itself was not an emergency. The Court also rejected the defendant’s other argument, that foliage obscuring the stop sign constituted an emergency, albeit with far less discussion. What can be gleaned from the opinion is that the Court of Appeals thought foliage obscuring the road sign was not “in the nature of a variance from an ‘everyday traffic routine,'” although the Court failed to provide much analysis on this point making the Court’s reasoning on this second argument less persuasive.
These recent decisions, read in conjunction with prior holdings, demonstrate the onerous burden a defendant faces in establishing a sudden emergency as a matter of law. They reaffirm the propositions that in order to constitute a sudden emergency, the event must truly be, without question, unusual, unsuspected, sudden and not of the defendant’s own making.
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Sarah Nadeau, Editor of The Garan Report Publication, is a Shareholder in our Detroit Office. Sarah can be reached at 313.446.1530 or firstname.lastname@example.org