Chapter 73: Sudden Emergency Doctrine

§73.1 Generally

The Case : Eaton v. McClain, 891 S.W.2d 587 (Tenn. 1994).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff fell down the steps in her daughter's home when she attempted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She thought the basement door was the bathroom door.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The policy considerations underlying two other traditional exceptions to the doctrine of contributory negligence, the sudden emergency doctrine, Johnson v. Copeland, [158 S.W.2d 986, 988, (Tenn. 1942)], and the rescue doctrine, Ruth v. Ruth, [372 S.W.2d 285, 288-89 (Tenn. 1963)], have been implicitly subsumed by our decision in McIntyre and should also impact the jury's apportionment of fault between the parties in an appropriate case." 891 S.W.2d at 592.
  • "In summary, the percentage of fault assigned to each party should be dependent upon all the circumstances of the case, including such factors as: (1) the relative closeness of the causal relationship between the conduct of the defendant and the injury to the plaintiff;FN9 (2) the reasonableness of the party's conduct in confronting a risk, such as whether the party knew of the risk, or should have known of it;FN10 (3) the extent to which the defendant failed to reasonably utilize an existing opportunity to avoid the injury to the plaintiff;FN11 (4) the existence of a sudden emergency requiring a hasty decision;FN12 (5) the significance of what the party was attempting to accomplish by the conduct, such as an attempt to save another's life; FN13 and (6) the party's particular capacities, such as age, maturity, training, education, and so forth. FN14
    FN9 This factor is derived from the doctrine of remote contributory negligence. For a discussion of that doctrine, Arnold v. Hayslett, [655 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tenn. 1983)]; Street v. Calvert, [541 S.W.2d 576, 585 (Tenn. 1976)].

    FN10 This factor is derived from the doctrine of 'secondary implied assumption of risk' that was abolished Perez v. McConkey, [872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994)].

    FN11 This factor is derived from the doctrine of last clear chance. For a discussion of this doctrine, Roseberry v. Lippner, [574 S.W.2d 726, 728 (Tenn. 1978)]; Street v. Calvert, [541 S.W.2d 576, 583-84 (Tenn. 1976)].

    FN12 This factor is derived from the doctrine of sudden emergency. Johnson v. Copeland, [158 S.W.2d 986, 988 (Tenn. 1942)].

    FN13 This factor is derived from the rescue doctrine. Ruth v. Ruth, [372 S.W.2d 285, 288-89 (Tenn. 1963)].

    FN14 This factor is derived from pre-McIntyre law as to minors. Arnold v. Hayslett, [655 S.W.2d 941 (Tenn. 1983)]; Standridge v. Godsey, [226 S.W.2d 277 (Tenn. 1950)]. We have relied heavily on the Uniform Comparative Fault Act, 12 U.L.A. 42 (1977) in formulating these guidelines. The Committee Comment to § 2(b) of the Act provides:

    In comparing the fault of the several parties for the purpose of obtaining percentages there are a number of implications arising from the concept of fault. The conduct of the claimant or of any defendant may be more or less at fault, depending on all the circumstances including such matters as (1) whether the conduct was mere inadvertence or engaged in with an awareness of the danger involved; (2) the magnitude of the risk created by the conduct, including the number of persons endangered and the potential seriousness of the injury; (3) the significance of what the actor was trying to attain by his conduct; (4) the actor's superior or inferior capacities; and (5) the particular circumstances, such as the existence of an emergency requiring a hasty decision.

    In determining the relative fault of the parties, the fact-finder will also give consideration to the relative closeness of the causal relationship of the negligent conduct of the defendant and the harm to the plaintiff. Degrees of fault and proximity of causation are inextricably mixed, as a study of last clear chance indicates, and that common law doctrine has been absorbed in this Act.

    This approach was adopted by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Watson v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Ins. Co., 469 So.2d 967, 973-74 (La. 1985)."
    Id. at 592.
  • "We do not wish to imply from our enumeration of these factors that they constitute an exclusive list for the purpose of apportioning fault between the negligent parties. As stated above, the fault apportionment question is ultimately dependent upon all the circumstances of the case; and juries will continue, as they have in the past, to rely upon their common sense and ordinary experience in apportioning fault. Nor do we wish to imply that these factors will not need to be revised or expanded at some future date as we are presented with specific factual situations. We have only attempted in this opinion to give general guidance to the bench and bar; and any unresolved questions with respect to the factors must wait for another day. Again, while we realize that all these factors will not be applicable to every case, we believe that this approach is superior to leaving trial courts and juries completely without standards in this process. FN15
    FN15 One of our concerns is that when a jury is given absolutely no guidance in its apportionment of fault, that finding is effectively unreviewable by an appellate court. This fact stands in marked distinction to a finding of contributory negligence under the pre-McIntyre system, which was reviewable because the jury was charged as to the elements of negligence. Although the application of the elements of negligence to the facts of the case under the old system was often difficult, at least the appellate court had some standard by which to judge the jury's actions."
    Id. at 593.

Other Sources of Note: Knowles v. State , 49 S.W.3d 330 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) (one who creates a emergency cannot rely on the sudden emergency doctrine.); Ross v. Vanderbilt University, 27 S.W.3d 523 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000) (it was not error to charge sudden emergency doctrine in a medical negligence case involving allegations of error against an emergency room physician).

Recent Cases: Johnson v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County , No. M2009-01243-COA-RM-CV, 2009 WL 2868757 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 2, 2009) (affirming summary judgment on negligence claim in police officer bystander shooting case finding officer's actions were reasonable in the context of a sudden emergency); Olinger v. University Medical Center, No. M2006-02312-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 162535 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2008) perm. appeal denied (June 30, 2008) (holding that a jury instruction on sudden emergency doctrine was not error in a claim for an emergency room situation involving a rare but known occurrence during child birth).

§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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