The Charlotte Observer reports that there was a head-on crash in Ballantyne early this morning. Some time before 2:30 a.m., a pickup truck was travelling eastbound in the westbound lanes of Ballantyne Commons Parkway near Community House Road, when it collided with a Toyota Prius travelling westbound. The drivers of both vehicles were taken to the hospital and are expected to survive.
In looking at the liability of the drivers in this type of fact scenario, it is clear that the driver of the pickup truck is negligent in driving on the wrong side of the road. When you drive your car on a road, you have a duty to exercise the care of a reasonable person. A reasonable person would not drive on the wrong side of the road when there is oncoming traffic, and a driver who does so violates this duty.
Furthermore, North Carolina statute G.S. 20-146(c) provides that “[u]pon any highway having four or more lanes for moving traffic and providing for two-way movement of traffic, no vehicle shall be driven to the left of the centerline of the highway, except when authorized by official traffic-control devices designating certain lanes to the left side of the center of the highway for use by traffic not otherwise permitted to use such lanes or except as permitted under subsection (a)(2) hereof.”
Subsection (a)(2) allows a motorist to drive to the left of center when there is an obstruction which makes it necessary to do so, but requires a motorist to “yield the right-of-way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the highway within such distance as to constitute an immediate hazard.” Even assuming that the driver of the pickup truck was driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid an obstruction (though there are no facts given to support this assumption), the driver did not yield the right of way to the Toyota Prius which was traveling in the proper direction, and therefore violated the statute. The violation of a statute enacted for safety purposes is negligence per se and only causation between the violation and the injuries sustained must be proven.
What if the driver of the Toyota Prius hit another car as a result of swerving out of the path of the oncoming pickup truck and the driver of this third car filed an action for damages against the driver of the Prius? Although our common sense analysis might tell us that the Prius driver did nothing wrong, the driver of the third car might argue that the Prius driver violated G.S. 20-146(d)(1) which states that “[a] vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” Therefore, the Prius driver violated a statute enacted for safety purposes, which would establish negligence per se.
However, the Prius driver can use the defense of the sudden emergency doctrine. In the 1995 case Holbrook v. Henley, the North Carolina Court of Appeals summarized the sudden emergency doctrine in automobile cases as follows:
An automobile driver, who, by the negligence of another and not his own negligence, is suddenly placed in an emergency and compelled to act instantly to avoid a collision or injury, is not guilty of negligence if he makes such a choice as a person of ordinary prudence placed in such a position might make, even though he made neither the wisest choice nor the one that would have been required in the exercise of ordinary care except for the emergency.
The application of the sudden emergency doctrine is a two-step inquiry. The first step is to determine whether the defendant was confronted with a sudden emergency. In Holbrook, the court of appeals defined an “emergency situation” as one which “compels [the defendant] to act instantly to avoid a collision or injury.” The second step is to determine whether the emergency was caused in whole or part by the negligence of the defendant. The court of appeals explained in Holbrook that the rationale behind this second requirement is that “a party cannot by his own negligent conduct permit an emergency to arise and then excuse himself for his actions or omissions on the ground that he was called to act in an emergency.”
A 2013 court of appeals case, Fulmore v. Howell, involved a driver who was faced with an oncoming vehicle in his lane and “jerked” the wheel and hit his brakes, but collided with the vehicle. The collision caused his truck to end up in another lane and collide with the plaintiff’s car. The defendant “described the time between when he first saw [the oncoming] vehicle traveling in the opposite direction in his lane until his collision with [plaintiff] as ‘instantaneous[.]’” The defendant argued that the sudden emergency doctrine applied, and the court agreed. In analyzing the defendant’s action when faced with an oncoming vehicle, the court stated that
[t]he cases reveal that motorists who have been confronted by an automobile approaching in the wrong lane have, on occasions, (1) continued straight ahead, (2) turned to the right, (3) turned to the left, and (4) stopped…. In applying the doctrine of sudden emergency, the courts have not been inclined to weigh in “golden scales” the conduct of the motorist who has acted under the excited impulse of sudden panic induced by the negligence of the other motorist.
The court of appeals then affirmed the trial court’s granting of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the sudden emergency doctrine.
Let’s apply the sudden emergency doctrine to the Toyota Prius and our hypothetical third car. First, the Prius driver was in an “emergency situation” because he had to “act instantly to avoid a collision or injury.” Second, the emergency was not caused in whole or part by the negligence of the Prius driver. Lastly, by swerving to avoid an oncoming car, the Prius driver would have acted in one of the many ways a reasonable person might when faced with an oncoming vehicle. Therefore, the Prius driver would be not guilty of negligence under the sudden emergency doctrine.