Liability in Car Accidents Caused by Sudden Incapacitation (Medical Emergency) in North Carolina

Charlotte Personal Injury Attorney Matt Arnold answers the question: “What if the accident was my fault?”


Typically, a driver who causes a car crash in Charlotte or elsewhere in North Carolina is held liable for the resulting damages if the victim can prove that the driver was negligent. However, one of the defenses in a car accident injury claim is the “sudden incapacitation” of the motorist.

ambulance-Charlotte-Monroe-Lake-Norman-Personal-Injury-Lawyer-225x300The term “sudden incapacitation” refers to any medical emergency that causes a driver to lose control of the vehicle. Examples of medical emergencies include a stroke, loss of consciousness, heart attack, and seizure, among others.

Previously, we talked about car crashes caused by drugged driving in North Carolina.


What Constitutes the Sudden Incapacitation Defense?

In Word CTA v. Jones Moore (1999), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the at-fault motorist must prove four factors to establish the “sudden incapacitation” defense:

  1. The driver experienced a medical emergency or sudden incapacitation;
  2. The incapacitation was unforeseeable;
  3. The driver lost control of the vehicle and was unable to regain control due to the incapacitation; and
  4. The unforeseeable incapacitation – not any other factor or negligence – caused the crash.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed the aforementioned four factors in Mobley v. Estate of Johnson (1993), in which the defendant had a stroke. The defendant’s sudden incapacitation caused him to swerve across the divider line and hit another vehicle. The court held that the defendant is “not chargeable with negligence” when his sudden and unforeseeable incapacitation renders him unable to control a motor vehicle.

After reviewing the factors set out in Mobley and Word, the state of North Carolina adopted them as a defense to liability in car accidents caused by sudden incapacitation.


Sudden Incapacitation and Car Accident Liability in North Carolina

When it comes to establishing the sudden incapacitation defense in negligence-based car accident cases, the burden of proof is on the defendant. The defendant has to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that (a) they experienced sudden incapacitation at the time of the collision, (b) the medical emergency was unforeseeable, (c) the incapacitation caused the defendant to lose control of the vehicle, and (d) the sudden incapacitation was the cause of the accident and the victim’s personal injury.

Some of you might be thinking, “Does the sudden incapacitation defense in North Carolina mean that drivers with medical conditions should not be allowed to drive at all?” The answer depends on the severity of the medical issue, the driver’s ability to control the condition, whether the risk of sudden incapacitation is high, and whether the medical condition could interfere with the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.

Under the North Carolina Statute G.S. § 20-9, the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles is not permitted to issue a driver’s license to individuals who are:

  • Unable to understand direction signs, traffic rules, road signs, and highway warnings; and
  • Afflicted with or suffering from medical conditions that “prevent such person from exercising reasonable and ordinary control over a motor vehicle.”

However, the statute permits a person with a known medical issue to undergo a physical examination to obtain a certificate demonstrating that their condition is not “a hazard to public safety” when operating a motor vehicle.

Speak with our car accident attorneys in Charlotte, North Carolina, if your crash was caused by sudden incapacitation. Do not hesitate to contact our lawyers at Arnold & Smith, PLLC, if you are a driver who experienced sudden incapacitation during a car crash. Call (704) 370-2828 to receive a video or phone consultation with our lawyers to explore your legal options or fill out our contact form. Now taking cases throughout North Carolina with offices in Uptown Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe.







The skilled personal injury attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are dedicated to maximizing the financial recovery and obtaining justice for every personal injury client injured by another party’s negligence. The issues our personal injury clients may be facing include, but are not limited to, slip and fall injuries, wrongful death, product liability, catastrophic injuries, dog bite claims, car and truck accident injuries, motorcycle injuries, traumatic brain injury (TBI), nursing home negligence, spinal cord injury, boating accidents, and defective medical device injury. Our personal injury attorneys understand the devastating impact such an injury can have on a person’s life, and that the effects so often go beyond physical pain and suffering. The personal injury attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are dedicated to helping clients determine the strength of their claims, and to aggressively pursuing the means necessary to achieve the best possible end result for each client’s particular situation.





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