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Man Suffers Heart Attack While Driving on I-85

The Charlotte Observer reports that a good Samaritan woman stopped and gave CPR to a man who was involved in a Christmas day car accident on I-85. The man was driving his car on I-85 North when his car ran into the median barrier. After the accident, the good Samaritan found the man slumped over in his car. Because the doors were locked, the good Samaritan used a baseball bat to break a window. She removed the man from the car and proceeded to give him CPR, while waiting for medical help to arrive. When the man was taken to the hospital, doctors determined that he suffered a heart attack at the time of the accident.

Fortunately, no one else was injured in the car accident. But if there had been other injuries suffered, would the man have been negligent for having a heart attack while driving? It depends on the man’s medical history. A defense to liability is car accident is sudden incapacitation. The North Carolina Supreme Court has stated that a defendant successfully using this defense must show that

(i) the defendant was stricken by a sudden incapacitation, (ii) this incapacitation was unforeseeable to the defendant, (iii) the defendant was unable to control the vehicle as a result of this incapacitation, and (iv) this sudden incapacitation caused the accident.

Although the good Samaritan found the man slumped over in his car after the accident, we don’t know whether he was rendered unconscious before or after the accident. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court held in Word v. ex rel. Moore (1999) that unconsciousness is not required to use the sudden incapacitation defense. The Court reasoned that

requiring unconsciousness has the potential for under-inclusiveness depending upon how "consciousness" is defined. For example, a defendant suffering from the onset of a medical emergency may not be rendered immediately unconscious, yet may, in the moments before unconsciousness, be in such extreme pain as to be incapable of controlling the operation of a motor vehicle. Without the benefit of medical evidence, we are not prepared to exclude from the applicability of the defense of sudden incapacitation situations which might render a defendant suddenly incapable of controlling a motor vehicle without rendering the defendant unconscious. We are satisfied that the four elements adopted above from Mobley provide a sufficient framework for a reasonable juror, upon proper instructions, to determine the legitimacy of the defense of sudden  incapacitation without the additional element of unconsciousness.

Since Word, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has examined the sudden incapacitation defense in a couple of other cases. Most applicable to the Christmas day accident reported in the Charlotte Observer, is the 2010 case, Henry v. Knudsen. In Henry, the defendant had a heart attack while driving, which resulted in an accident injuring the plaintiff. The defendant had a history of heart problems, but “[d]espite his heart problems, defendant was given the authority to operate a motor vehicle by the Division of Motor Vehicles based upon a recommendation by his treating physician.” Prior to the accident, the defendant “had not had any episodes of sudden onset of chest pain like the one he experienced that day or any loss of consciousness while driving.” The Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to submit the issue of sudden incapacitation to the jury.

In the Christmas day accident, we have no facts regarding the driver’s medical history. If the driver had no history of heart problems, it is an easy call to say he could use the sudden incapacitation defense. If he had such a history of heart problems that his doctor advised him not to drive, it is an easy call to say that he could not use the sudden incapacitation defense. The basic question is whether it is reasonably foreseeable that the driver’s medical issues would interfere with his ability to drive.

Although not decisive, one place we can look for guidance is the North Carolina statute which permits the DMV to refuse to issue driver’s licenses to people with certain disabilities or illnesses. G.S. 20-9(e) states that

The Division shall not issue a driver's license to any person when in the opinion of the Division such person is afflicted with or suffering from such physical or mental disability or disease as will serve to prevent such person from exercising reasonable and ordinary control over a motor vehicle while operating the same upon the highways, nor shall a license be issued to any person who is unable to understand highway warnings or direction signs.

However, G.S. 20-9(g) permits a doctor to conduct a physical examination of a person with a known physical or mental disability and sign a certificate stating that it is a not “a hazard to public safety to permit the applicant to operate a motor vehicle.” Information to be included on this certificate, if true, might be “the examining physician's statement that the applicant is under medication and treatment and that such person's physical or mental disability is controlled.”

Clearly, a person who drives in violation of the DMV’s refusal to issue a driver’s license would be negligent. However, these statutes are not decisive in our analysis of the sudden incapacitation defense because the statute requires the DMV to have “the opinion” that the person’s disability or illness will “prevent such person from exercising reasonable and ordinary control over a motor vehicle.” One can easily imagine a situation where a person has had a recent heart diagnosis which has prompted his doctor to advise him against driving, but the DMV has not been made aware of this diagnosis and advice. Just because the DMV has not refused to issue the driver’s license, does not mean that the person can escape liability under the sudden incapacitation defense if his doctor has advised him not to drive.

In the case the Christmas day accident, fortunately, no one else was involved, and we hope for the best for the driver who suffered the heart attack.

If you have been injured in a car accident, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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