Foreseeability and the Sudden Medical Emergency Defense

car accident lawyerGenerally, when a driver causes an accident due their loss of consciousness while driving, they avail themselves of the sudden medical emergency as a defense as long as he can establish that he was in fact unconscious at the time of the accident, and that this loss of consciousness was unforeseen. See, e.g., Moore v. Presnell, 38 Md. App. 243,247 (1977);  Timothy E. Travers, Annotation, Liability for Automobile Accident Allegedly Caused by Driver’s Blackout, Sudden Unconsciousness, or the Like, 93 A.L.R.3d 326 (2005).

The courts differ as to what constitutes foreseeability, but they have used factors such as medical testimony that the driver could not have foreseen the loss of consciousness, whether or not the driver’s doctor had warned him not to drive, witness testimony that the driver lost consciousness suddenly, and the statements of the driver at the scene of the car accident. Id.

One of the most extensive foreseeability tests comes from Hawaii. In the case of Cruz v. United States, a postal worker lost control of his postal truck when he suddenly fainted at the wheel due to a heart blockage. Cruz, 987 F. Supp 1299, 1301 (1997). The test requires balancing among the following factors: 

  1. Extent of driver’s awareness or knowledge of that condition that caused the sudden incapacity
  2. Whether or not the driver sought medical advice or was under a physician’s care for the condition at the time of the accident
  3. Whether the driver has been prescribed, and has taken medication for the condition
  4. Whether or not a sudden incapacity had previously occurred when driving
  5. The number, frequency, extent, and duration of the incapacitating episodes prior to the accident while driving, and otherwise
  6. The temporal relationship of the prior incapacitating episodes to the accident
  7. A physician’s guidance or advice to the driver regarding his ability to drive, and
  8. Medical opinions regarding the nature of the driver’s condition, adherence to treatment, foreseeability of the incapacitation, and any potential advance warning which the driver would have experienced immediately prior to the accident.  

Id. at 1303 (citing to McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150, 156 (Tenn. 1995) in which the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that a driver who suffered a seizure and struck another vehicle as a result was not entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law, because a reasonable mind could differ as to whether the seizure was foreseeable).

Consequently, when facing a defendant invoking the sudden medical emergency defense, it is critical that plaintiff’s counsel obtain extensive discovery regarding the Defendant’s prior medical history, via both party discovery and subpoenas directed at identified medical facilities.  As the lawyers at the Law Offices of Ryan Quinn, PLLC, explain, generating evidence that the claimed emergency was not genuinely unforeseen is vital to prevailing once this defense is asserted.