The Charlotte Observer reports that a deer was involved in a car accident that occurred yesterday afternoon around 4 p.m. A truck rear-ended an SUV after the SUV stopped to let a deer cross the road in eastern Mecklenburg County. The deer was not hurt but three people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Although the deer might have indirectly caused the accident, an injured party cannot collect damages from a deer. So if a person is injured in an accident like this one, who is liable for damages?
First, let’s remember that any injured party seeking to recover damages from another party must demonstrate the negligence of that other party. To do that, the injured party must show that the other party had a duty to exercise reasonable care, the other party failed to exercise reasonable care, and the injuries suffered were both actually and proximately caused by that failure to exercise reasonable care.
The SUV driver might argue that the truck driver was under a duty to exercise reasonable care not to rear-end cars in front of him, by keeping a safe distance behind the car in front of him and remaining attentive to the road. We don’t know why the truck driver was unable to stop before hitting the SUV, but if he was travelling too closely or inattentive to the road, he would have failed to meet his duty to exercise reasonable care.
One defense a defendant might raise to a negligence claim is the sudden emergency doctrine. north carolina courts have summarized the sudden emergency doctrine as follows in automobile cases:
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.
Holbrook v. Henley (NC App 1995)
To determine whether the sudden emergency doctrine is applicable to a specific case, North Carolina courts conduct a two-step inquiry. The first step is to ask whether the defendant was confronted with a sudden emergency. The court of appeals has defined an “emergency situation” as one which which “compels [the defendant] to act instantly to avoid a collision or injury.” (Holbrook)
The second step is to ask whether the emergency was caused in whole or part by the negligence of the defendant. If the answer is yes then the defendant cannot benefit from the sudden emergency doctrine because “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.” (Holbrook)
North Carolina courts have been reluctant to apply the sudden emergency doctrine to cases of rear-ending incidents such as the one from yesterday’s accident because they reason that drivers should expect sudden stops and travel at a distance sufficient to allow them to stop before colliding with the car in front of them.
For example, in the case Holbrook v. Henley, the defendant was traveling on a road that was relatively flat with no obstructions that would have kept him from seeing down the road in his travel lane. When the defendant did observe cars stopped in his travel lane, he braked to avoid colliding with the cars in front of him, but the braking caused his car to slide sideways into the plaintiff’s lane of travel. The defendant raised the sudden emergency doctrine as a defense and the court of appeals conducted the required two-step inquiry. Under the first step, the court determined that the defendant was confronted with an emergency situation. In analyzing the second factor, the court stated that
As a general rule, every motorist driving upon the highways of this state is bound to a minimal duty of care to keep a reasonable and proper lookout in the direction of travel and see what he ought to see. The law requires a motorist to take notice that the exigencies of traffic may, at any time, [require] a sudden stop by him or by the motor vehicle immediately in front of him.... [T]he reasonably prudent operator will not put himself unnecessarily in a position which will absolutely preclude him from coping with an emergency. Consequently, [w]here a motorist discovers, or in the exercise of due care should discover, obstruction within the extreme range of his vision and can stop if he acts immediately, but his estimates of his speed, distance, and ability to stop are inaccurate and he finds stopping impossible, he cannot then claim the benefit of the sudden emergency doctrine. Stated alternatively, [d]rivers are therefore required in the exercise of ordinary care to expect sudden stops when driving in heavy traffic. In accord, such stops do not constitute an unexpected or emergency situation.
The court concluded that because the emergency situation with which the defendant was confronted “was brought about, at least in part, by his own potential inattention and failure to maintain a proper lookout,” the application of the sudden emergency doctrine was not proper.
In applying the sudden emergency doctrine to yesterday’s accident, we can look at a map of the road where the accident occurred (Camp Stewart Road near Old Iron Lane, according to The Charlotte Observer). The map shows that this portion of Camp Stewart Road is fairly straight, although there is a slight curve in the road that could potentially limit visibility. However, even if the slight curve in the road did limit the truck driver’s long-range vision of the road, a court might conclude that the truck driver should not have “put himself unnecessarily in a position which will absolutely preclude him from coping with an emergency” and therefore, should have limited his speed to such that would allow him to avoid a collision if faced with an emergency.
What if, alternatively, the two cars collided because one car swerved to avoid the deer in the road, and as a result of swerving, hit the other car? Would the car that swerved be able to raise the defense of the sudden emergency doctrine? The court of appeals has held that the sudden emergency doctrine applies to situations where a driver is "suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with imminent danger to himself or others.” (Ligon v. Matthew Allen Strickland (2006)) The doctrine should not be applied to the situation where a driver swerves only “to save the life of an animal”. However, if a collision with the animal would cause “imminent danger” to the driver or another person, the sudden emergency doctrine could be properly applied. A collision with a deer is one that could cause “imminent danger” to the driver or another person. If instead, the driver swerved to avoid a squirrel, this would not be a situation to properly apply the sudden emergency doctrine.
If you have been injured in a car accident, visit www.rflaw.net for legal help.