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§73.2 Medically Incapacitating Disorder as a Defense

§73.2 Medically Incapacitating Disorder as a Defense

The Case: McCall v. Wilder , 913 S.W.2d 150 (Tenn. 1995).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff sued administrator of estate in motor vehicle case. Defendant claimed that the accident was caused by a sudden emergency created when the decedent suffered a seizure while driving.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We granted plaintiff's application for permission to appeal to decide an issue not previously faced by this Court: whether, and under what circumstances, the driver of a motor vehicle who suddenly loses control of the vehicle because of physical incapacitation caused by a known medical condition may be liable for personal injury or property damages. We hold that liability may be imposed upon the driver who knows of the medically incapacitating disorder, and who poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others by driving under circumstances such that a reasonably prudent person could foresee an accident." 913 S.W.2d at 151-52.
  • "Our careful consideration of the jurisprudence of other jurisdictions and our own leads us to adopt the following rule: A sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity experienced while driving which is not reasonably foreseeable is a defense to a negligence action. To constitute a defense, defendant must establish that the sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity to control the vehicle was not reasonably foreseeable to a prudent person. As a result, the defense is not available under circumstances in which defendant was made aware of facts sufficient to lead a reasonably prudent person to anticipate that driving in that condition would likely result in an accident.

    In determining whether the loss of capacity or consciousness was foreseeable, pertinent, nonexclusive considerations would include: the extent of the driver's awareness or knowledge of the condition that caused the sudden incapacity; whether the driver had sought medical advice or was under a physician's care for the condition when the accident occurred; whether the driver had been prescribed, and had taken, medication for the condition; whether a sudden incapacity had previously occurred while driving; the number, frequency, extent, and duration of incapacitating episodes prior to the accident while driving and otherwise; the temporal relationship of the prior incapacitating episodes to the accident; a physician's guidance or advice regarding driving to the driver, if any; and medical opinions regarding the nature of the driver's condition, adherence to treatment, foreseeability of the incapacitation, and potential advance warnings which the driver would have experienced immediately prior to the accident. These factors, and any other relevant ones under the circumstances, would tend to establish whether the duty to exercise reasonable care was breached.

    We agree with the Court of Appeals' reluctance to adopt a rule that would exclude individuals who had once suffered an incapacitating episode from ever driving again. Nonetheless, we can envision without much difficulty situations in which driving at all might constitute negligence. One who is ill or incapacitated at times may be negligent in driving at all when he or she is aware that a sudden incapacitation could likely occur at any moment. [RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS, § 283C, comment c (1965)].FN2

FN2 '[A]n automobile driver who suddenly and quite unexpectedly suffers a heart attack does not become negligent when [the driver] loses control of [the] car and drives it in a manner which would otherwise be unreasonable; but one who knows that he [or she] is subject to such attacks may be negligent in driving at all.' [RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS, § 283C, comment c (1965)]."

Id. at 155-56.

  • "In light of the stipulated facts that decedent had suffered seizures prior to the accident and was aware of the medical condition causing unconsciousness, we have no difficulty concluding that a jury could find that an accident with resulting injury to others was reasonably foreseeable. Even without the stipulated facts, decedent, under the law of this state, would owe a duty to act reasonably in light of the inherent dangers associated with driving. Whitaker v. Harmon, [879 S.W.2d 865, 869 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1994)], perm. to appeal denied, (Tenn. 1994); Hale v. Rayburn, [264 S.W.2d 230, 232 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1953) cert. denied (Tenn. 1953)]; see also 93 A.L.R.3d at 330. Unquestionably, decedent owed plaintiff a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person would act in light of the inherent dangers associated with driving and exacerbated by his known incapacitating medical condition." Id. at 156-57.
  • "Finally, defendant's reliance on the sudden emergency doctrine is misplaced. The sudden emergency doctrine, which has now been subsumed into Tennessee's comparative fault scheme, Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 592 (Tenn. 1995), recognizes that a person confronted with a sudden or unexpected emergency which calls for immediate action is not expected to exercise the same accuracy of judgment as one acting under normal circumstances who has time for reflection and thought before acting. See Young v. Clark, 814 P.2d 364, 365 (Colo. 1991); see also [Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 196].FN3

FN3 '[T]he basis of the rule is merely that the actor is left no time for adequate thought, or is reasonably so disturbed or excited that the actor cannot weigh alternative courses of action, and must make a speedy decision, based very largely upon impulse or guess. Under such circumstances, the actor cannot reasonably be held to the same accuracy of judgment or conduct as one who has had the full opportunity to reflect, even though it laters [sic] appears that the actor could have made the wrong decision, one which no reasonable person could possible [sic] have made after due deliberation.' [Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 196]."

Id . at 157.

  • "The doctrine no longer constitutes a defense as a matter of law but, if at issue, must be considered as a factor in the total comparative fault analysis. Accordingly, the doctrine of sudden emergency does not negate defendant's liability in the case before us as a matter of law." Id.


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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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