Examining the Medical Emergency Defense in Car Accident Cases
Sometimes liability in a car accident case is a fairly straightforward matter. Other times, liability is significantly more complex. One of the most complicated fact patterns occurs when a defendant claims that he or she suffered a medical emergency in the moments prior to a collision that left someone else injured or dead. As a Panama City plaintiff's car crash attorney, Wes Pittman understands the legal framework for a medical emergency defense and, by investigating the facts and ensuring the defense is only applied in the narrow circumstances for which it is intended, he can help ensure the injured and the grieving recover the maximum damages allowed by Florida law.
Investigators: Driver May Have Died Before Car Plowed Into Home
WJHG reported on a frightening accident that occurred in Panama City on Tuesday afternoon. At approximately 2 P.M., a taxi left the roadway and slammed into a home at Oak Avenue and West 9th Street. When emergency officials checked the vehicle, they found the cab's 55-year-old driver dead. Police, including Sgt. John Morris of the Panama City Police Department, say that it appears the driver had a medical condition of some form that caused him to die before the accident, and his death led to the crash. The Medical Examiner will be conducting an autopsy to confirm the driver's cause of death.
Florida Law on Accidents Caused By an Unexpected Medical Event
It seems to be simply luck that prevented any one else from being injured or killed in Tuesday's accident. What if the outcome had been different? If a plaintiff were to bring a claim in this type of matter, both the driver's insurance company and the driver's legal counsel would most likely assert that they are not obligated to pay damages because of Florida's medical emergency defense. As a plaintiff's law firm, we would investigate to determine if they have met all of the elements of this legal defense.
Florida law provides that a driver cannot be held negligent if he (or she, but we'll use a male pronoun for ease of reference since the recent taxi crash involved a male driver) suddenly loses consciousness due to an unforeseen cause. In February 2014, a Florida appellate court issued a ruling in the case of Marcum v. Hayward detailing the contours of the defense. Citing prior case law, the court held that a defendant must prove the following elements to be entitled to this defense:
- The defendant lost consciousness or otherwise lost the capacity to control the vehicle.
- This loss occurred before the allegedly negligent conduct (i.e. the driver fell unconscious before the events leading to the collision).
- The above loss of capacity was sudden.
- The above loss was not, and could not reasonably have been, foreseen.
A 1955 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bridges v. Speer, suggests cases often depend on whether the defendant knew he was unfit to drive. The court declares that even simple negligence is not present where an attack is sudden and unforeseen. However, "where one has notice or knowledge of the existence of a physical impairment which may come on suddenly and destroy his power to control an automobile, it is negligence to an extreme degree for such person to operate such vehicle." The court ultimately calls such acts gross and wanton negligence, comparing driving while aware of such a condition to playing Russian Roulette with the driver's own life and the lives of innocent bystanders.
Protecting Injured Plaintiffs by Strictly Interpreting Medical Emergency Defense
There is good reasoning behind the medical emergency defense. Negligence is a prerequisite for liability in most car accident injury cases, and negligence does not exist where the defendant suffered an unforeseeable medical event. However, allowing the defense means an injured plaintiff goes uncompensated. For this reason, the defense must be strictly interpreted and only applied where the defendant can prove each and every element.
If you are injured in a crash that was not your fault, do not take a potential defendant's (or an insurance company's) word that a defense applies. Call our Panama City personal injury law office. We will work hard to investigate the facts and ensure you receive any and all damages that the law allows.