What Happens if You Cause an Accident Trying to Avoid Another?: The Sudden Emergency Doctrine

Personal injury Lawyer Matt Arnold answers the question: “If I am injured in a car accident or at work what should I do?”


Imagine you are driving down the highway, taking care to obey all traffic laws. Suddenly, you see another car, driving in the wrong lane, headed straight for your vehicle. You react instinctually and swerve to the left, attempting to avoid a head-on collision with the errant car. In the process, you accidentally and instantaneously collide with another vehicle.

Tractor Trailer Charlotte Injury LawyerWhat happens legally in such a situation? Are you fully responsible for the injuries sustained by the person you hit, even though you only hit them trying to avoid a vehicle driving illegally?

In many states, including North Carolina, the answer is no, thanks to what is called the sudden emergency doctrine.

One of the trickiest, and most important, issues in many negligence claims is that of causation. The defendant must been the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries (i.e., but for the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff’s injuries would not have occurred). In addition, the defendant must have been a “proximate” cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; this type of causation refers to the foreseeability of the defendant’s actions. If there are too many intervening causes, or the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injuries are too attenuated in time and/or space, then the defendant may not be held liable.

In the fact scenario above, it may seem as though the person driving in the wrong lane should be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries—after all, they were the person breaking the law. However, both types of causation would likely pose issues to such a lawsuit succeeding.

In any case, the above scenario is the exact one in which Gregory Howell found himself several years ago. The woman he collided with in attempting to avoid the errant driver unfortunately died from her injuries, and her estate sued Howell and the trucking company for whom he was driving. The North Carolina Court of Appeals used the case as an opportunity to affirm that the sudden emergency doctrine remains alive and well in this state, despite criticisms from various jurisdictions that the doctrine is overly confusing to juries and unfairly allows defendants to escape liability.

As it is applied in North Carolina, the doctrine holds that a person confronted with a true emergency is not liable for any injury that results to the extent that the person acts as an objectively reasonable person would in such an emergency. The emergency situation must have required an immediate action to avoid an injury, and the emergent situation cannot have been created by the defendant’s own negligence.

The victim’s estate pointed to evidence that Howell had been driving beyond the maximum hours set by his employer, and pointed to the portion of the sudden emergency doctrine that requires that the defendant not have created the emergent situation. On this point the Court disagreed because the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that Howell was in fact fatigued on the day in question, or demonstrated that Howell’s alleged fatigue caused the accident in any way.

The plaintiff also argued that Howell could have veered right instead of left, and could have stopped more quickly to avoid the collision with the victim’s vehicle. The Court took the opportunity to point out that this was the exact sort of hindsight precluded by the sudden emergency doctrine. The doctrine’s purpose is to hold a person to the standard of an ordinarily reasonable person facing that particular emergency, and doesn’t require that the defendant have chosen the “wisest choice of conduct.”

If you or someone close to you has been injured, contact an experienced personal injury attorney today who can help you receive the compensation to which you may be entitled. Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC for a free consultation, call at 704-370-2828 or click here for additional resources.


About the Author

Matt Matthew Arnold is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of family law, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution.

Mr. Arnold was raised in Charlotte, where he graduated from Providence Senior High School. He attended Belmont Abbey College, where he graduated cum laude, before attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full academic scholarship.

A board-certified specialist in the practice of Family Law, Mr. Arnold is admitted to practice in all state courts in North Carolina, in the United States Federal Court for the Western District of North Carolina, in the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, and in the Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

In his free time, Mr. Arnold enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and three children.








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