The Driver Had a Medical Emergency and other Fun Liability Defenses the Insurer Uses

Every so often we get a call from a Georgia driver who has been in a car accident with someone who claims that the crash happened because of a medical emergency. Yet another reason for an insurance company to issue a denial and it often sounds legit on first blush. The real issue is "was the driver on notice that they had a condition or medication that could cause them to lose control?" 

Although a bona fide medical emergency rendering someone incapable of controlling his or her behavior can clearly absolve him or her of liability for a motor vehicle accident occasioned by that loss of control, courts have continued to be wary of applying this defense. For instance, in a recent decision, Woodard v. Dempsey, an Atlanta federal court recently denied summary judgment to a defendant driver who argued for the application of the medical emergency defense because the driver had long been aware of the condition that caused the medical emergency.

Woodard concerns a motor vehicle accident that occurred on a stretch of road in Marietta, Georgia. At the time of the accident, the defendant was in the midst of a trip from Ohio to Florida and was driving on the Canton Road Connector toward its intersection with the Cobb Parkway. As he approached the intersection, the defendant claims that he was physically unable to lift his leg from the accelerator. In an attempt to avoid hitting other vehicles, the defendant swerved into a grassy area to his right. The defendant’s vehicle, however, struck a signpost, and the defendant lost control of the SUV, which continued forward and hit a culvert. The impact with the culvert caused the SUV to go airborne and hit the passenger side of the plaintiff’s pickup truck. The collision resulted in the death of the plaintiff’s daughter, as well as non-fatal injuries to the plaintiff. In connection with this accident, the defendant pleaded guilty to failure to maintain lane, a violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48.

About five years earlier, the defendant was diagnosed with polymyositis, and during the course of these five years, he has experienced worsening leg problems. In his interrogatory responses, the defendant stated that he presumed, but did not know, if his polymyositis was the cause of the sensation he felt prior to the accident. The plaintiff brought suit, asserting wrongful death and personal injury claims predicated on the defendant’s negligence. At the conclusion of discovery, the defendant brought the current motion for summary judgment, predicated on an act of God/sudden emergency defense.

The sudden emergency defense is a complete defense to negligence and applies when a defendant establishes that he was faced with a sudden emergency and either acted with his “best judgment” or, as a result of the emergency, had insufficient time to form such a judgment. Willis v. Love, 502 S.E.2d 487, 489 (Ga. Ct. App. 1998). Importantly, an emergency only qualifies for this defense if it is “caused by circumstances [that] the defendant did not [contribute to] and [that] offered [him] a choice of conduct without time for thought so that negligence in [his] choice might be attributable not to lack of care but to lack of time to assess the situation.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Georgia law specifically provides that an “illness” may be considered an “act of God” and act as a complete bar to a negligence claim. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-3(3). For an illness to serve as a defense, a defendant must establish that the illness alone, rather than any additional conduct of the defendant, caused the accident. Lewis v. Smith, 517 S.E.2d 538, 540 (Ga. Ct. App. 1999).

In this case, the district court found the defendant’s recourse to the defense unavailing. As described above, this defense only applies when a defendant’s conduct did not in any way contribute to the accident. Accordingly, the defense may not be invoked when it is foreseeable that the defendant may experience such a medical emergency but chooses to drive. Id. (“[L]oss of consciousness . . .  would not be a complete defense if by the exercise of ordinary care it was foreseeable to the driver that he might lose consciousness while driving.”). 

First, there was ample evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could find that the defendant’s loss of control, occasioned by a medical condition he had been dealing with for several years, was foreseeable, and therefore he was not entitled to a sudden emergency defense. 

In addition, the defendant’s guilty plea was sufficient for the application of the negligence per se doctrine and provided prima facie evidence of the defendant’s negligence, foreclosing summary judgment. Accordingly, the district court denied the motion for summary judgment and set the case for trial.Medical emergencies are just one among the voluminous number of defenses defendants will readily invoke in motor vehicle accident cases. 

Parties in even seemingly commonplace car accident cases must be prepared to tackle a variety of substantive and procedural arguments, and they should consider finding competent counsel to aid them in this task. The Atlanta car accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have represented many injured drivers, and they are prepared to assist you with a possible case. If you’ve recently been injured in a motor vehicle accident and are curious about the options you may have for legal recourse, feel free to contact us to schedule a free case consultation.
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