The sudden emergency doctrine is a defense that insurance company lawyers try to use against a negligence claim. The sudden emergency doctrine theory says that a person who is faced with a sudden emergency and either acts within his best judgment or doesn’t have enough time to form such a judgment isn’t chargeable with negligence.
Georgia courts have defined an “emergency” as a “‘sudden peril caused by circumstances in which the defendant did not participate and which 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.'”
In October 2021, the Georgia Court of Appeals heard a case involving a rear-end accident where the jury found in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the defense of sudden emergency wasn’t supported by the evidence. However, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that evidence showed the defendant was presented with a choice of conduct without time for thought because he only had approximately two seconds to decide on a course of action.
The Facts of the Georgia Accident
On a morning in September 2013, while traveling on Interstate 575, the plaintiff and the defendant proceeded onto Exit 8 into extremely heavy, stop-and-go traffic. It wasn’t quite light out, and the road was wet from light rain.
The defendant traveled about a car length behind the plaintiff’s vehicle, and both the defendant and the plaintiff drove very slowly while “lining up” in preparation to make a right turn. But then an unknown driver from the highway cut in front of the plaintiff, which caused her to swerve slightly in the lane and slam on her brakes. The defendant began slowing after he saw other cars doing the same, but he rear-ended the plaintiff.
The defendant testified that “maybe two seconds” passed between the time that the unknown driver came onto the exit and the point at which the other drivers reacted. He also said that there was “a domino effect” after the unknown driver cut in front of the plaintiff. The defendant’s vehicle wasn’t damaged, but the plaintiff‘s vehicle sustained damage to the bumper, taillight, and trunk. She described the collision as “slight,” but she began experiencing neck pain a week after the accident.
The Trial and the Sudden Emergency Defense
In 2015, the plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant, seeking recovery for medical expenses and pain and suffering. The defendant denied liability, partly on the basis that a sudden emergency arose when the unknown driver cut in front of the plaintiff’s vehicle, which caused her to make a sudden stop.
The plaintiff argued that the defendant couldn’t use the sudden emergency defense because he’d testified to having followed too closely behind her. But the trial court charged the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine as follows:
Members of the jury, one who is confronted with a sudden emergency that was not caused by one’s own fault and is without sufficient time to determine accurately and with certainty the best thing to be done is not held to the same accuracy of judgment as would be required of that person if he had more time for deliberation. The requirement is that the person act with ordinary care under all particular facts and circumstances surrounding the situation, including, but not limited to obeying the traffic laws of this [S]tate.
The trial court also instructed the jury on the statutory duty regarding following too closely, as stated in OCGA § 40-6-49 (a). That instruction said:
The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway. If you find that the defendant violated that provision, then that would be negligence as a matter of law.
After the jury found for the defendant, the plaintiff challenged the trial court’s decision to give the sudden emergency instruction. The trial court denied her motion, reasoning that the sudden emergency charge was proper because:
- the unknown driver suddenly and unexpectedly darted in front of the plaintiff;
- the question of whether the defendant had been following too closely was for the jury; and
- the defendant faced a choice of conduct immediately before the accident.
The plaintiff filed an appeal, contending that the sudden emergency jury instruction wasn’t supported by the evidence because neither of the two elements of the doctrine was satisfied and that she was entitled to a directed verdict on this issue. She claimed that the defendant admitted to following too closely behind her, and therefore, as a matter of law, he participated in the circumstances that caused the sudden emergency. In addition, the defendant wasn’t presented with various alternative choices of conduct after the sudden emergency arose, as required by the defense.
Presiding Judge M. Yvette Miller explained in the opinion by the Georgia Court of Appeals that a trial court has a duty to charge the jury on the law applicable to issues which are supported by the evidence. She went on to quote a 2016 appellate case that stated:
The sudden emergency defense is available where the evidence shows that there has been a sudden peril caused by circumstances in which the defendant did not participate and which offered him a choice of conduct without time for thought; under such circumstances, negligence in his choice might be attributable not to lack of care but to lack of time to assess the situation.
The decision also said that a jury charge on the sudden emergency defense is authorized if the defendant presents any evidence, however slight, to support such a defense—even if there’s conflicting evidence that would allow the jury ultimately to find that an emergency didn’t exist.
Participation in Creating Sudden Peril
The plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, the defendant participated in the circumstances that caused any sudden peril because he admitted to following the plaintiff too closely. But Judge Miller found that a review of the record showed at least some evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the defendant did not participate in creating the emergency situation.
At trial on cross-examination the defendant was asked whether he was following the plaintiff too closely on the date of the incident. He responded, “[t]oo closely to stop — or to stop in time, but, yeah.”
The plaintiff’s counsel then asked, “So that’s a yes?” and the defendant responded, “Yes.” He further explained that “slight[ly] more” distance “would have helped.” However, the court said it was unpersuaded that these statements automatically establish, as a matter of law, that the defendant was following too closely.
Judge Miller also found that in light of the evidence concerning the roadway, the traffic conditions, the drivers’ slow speed, and the distance that the defendant maintained behind the plaintiff, the jury could have legitimately concluded that the defendant wasn’t following too closely.
In summary, the judge said the record didn’t make it plain and indisputable that the defendant participated in creating any sudden peril.
Choice of Conduct
Next, the plaintiff contended that the jury instruction was erroneous because the defendant faced no choice of conduct after the emergency arose. But the Court of Appeals concluded that the record contained evidence that the defendant was presented with a choice of conduct without time for thought.
The court emphasized that it wasn’t necessary for the defendant to expressly testify to facing various choices of conduct or exercising one of several choices. Here, there was evidence that the defendant faced at least two choices of conduct after the emergency arose. The exit ramp was bordered by a grassy shoulder, which was apparently wide enough for him to avoid the collision. The plaintiff testified that after the accident, she and the defendant “both pulled to the right-hand side into the grass” and onto the shoulder to avoid “any more issues.” Therefore, there was evidence that the defendant could have swerved onto the shoulder instead of attempting to stop. But he only had about two seconds to decide on a course of action.
Because the record contains some evidence that the defendant was faced with sudden peril caused by circumstances in which he did not participate and which offered him a choice of conduct without time for thought, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly instructed the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine. The judgment was affirmed. Smithwick v. Campbell, 361 Ga. App. 481, 864 S.E.2d 662 (Ga. App. October 18, 2021).
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