The Charlotte Observer reported that black ice was a factor in a fatal accident on I-85 last weekend. Early Sunday morning, around 2:30 a.m., a man was driving on I-85 in Gaston County. Troopers believe that after hitting black ice, the man lost control of his car and ran off the road. The car then struck a tree and caught fire. The car was demolished in the accident and, unfortunately, the man was killed.
Although we do not know how fast the man was travelling, according to the trooper the man was travelling too fast for icy conditions. However, the trooper also stated that the man would have had no reason to think that ice was on the road because there had been no rain that day and it was not raining at the time of the accident. It had rained the day before the accident and the trooper believed that this rain had seeped up through the cracks in the road and turned to ice when the temperature dropped below freezing.
No one else was injured in the accident, but what if instead of running off the road, the man’s car had collided with another car after hitting the black ice. Would an injured person be able to hold the man liable for damages?
The injured party seeking damages from the car accident would be required to show that the man was legally negligent or that he failed to exercise reasonable care and that such failure both actually and proximately caused the injuries sustained. In this case, the man might argue that he is not liable under the sudden emergency doctrine. North Carolina courts have summarized the sudden emergency doctrine as follows in automobile cases:
The sudden emergency doctrine provides that one confronted with an emergency is not liable for an injury resulting from his acting as a reasonable man might act in such an emergency. Two elements must be satisfied before the sudden emergency doctrine applies: (1) an emergency situation must exist requiring immediate action to avoid injury, and (2) the emergency must not have been created by the negligence of the party seeking the protection of the doctrine.
Sobczak v. Vorholt (NC App 2007)
Sobczak involved a defendant whose car was travelling on an icy road and lost control of his car. His car then crossed the center line and hit the plaintiff’s oncoming car. Prior to the accident, the defendant had travelled for about four miles on the road and claimed to not have observed any icy conditions, although he did see snow that had been packed down by other cars and knew that packed down snow could turn to ice.
The court of appeals in Sobczak held that the defendant could not benefit from the sudden emergency doctrine because the defendant “was on notice of a potential encounter with ice on the road, and that hitting ice as he drove was foreseeable.” Therefore, the defendant
knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that the snow on [the road] could have become ice in some areas, [and] the mere fact that he did not see the icy patch he hit in advance of hitting it is insufficient to establish that he was thereby confronted with a sudden emergency.
However, in the case of the man who encountered ice on I-85 early Sunday morning, the statements of the trooper indicate that hitting ice was not foreseeable. In that case, it had not recently rained and there was no current precipitation. Although it would have been foreseeable that the drop in temperatures would turn any water on the road to ice, it was arguably not foreseeable that there would be any water on the road. Therefore, it seems that the man encountering ice early Sunday morning might have benefited from the sudden emergency doctrine had he injured someone else when he lost control of his car.
What about the trooper’s comment about the man going too fast for the conditions? The trooper stated that he did not know how fast the man was travelling (the speed limit on that portion of I-85 is 60 mph) but that his speed was “too fast for conditions and the conditions were the ice.” However, we just discussed that it was arguably not foreseeable that there would be ice on the road. So as long as the man was not travelling above the speed limit, his speed would have been reasonable.
What if the man was travelling above the speed limit? In that case, the man would have been violating a traffic law that was designed to protect the public. When a person violates such a law, that person is negligent per se. Negligence per se assumes the failure to exercise reasonable care based on the defendant’s violation of a law which was intended to protect the public. If a defendant is negligent per se, then the plaintiff must prove only the issue of proximate cause.
In the Charlotte Observer article, the trooper stated that the man’s “[s]peed resulted in the severity of the collision, but speed itself was not the reason why the collision occurred.” The trooper went on to clarify that the man “wouldn’t have run off the road just because he was traveling fast. But once he hit the ice, he lost control.” Therefore, if the man’s car had collided with another car after hitting the black ice instead of running off the road, it is likely that travelling above the speed limit would have contributed to the severity of any injuries suffered in the resulting accident.
If you have been injured in a car accident, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.