Focus on the Facts to Obtain Summary Disposition on Sudden-Emergency Grounds

Focus on the Facts to Obtain Summary Disposition on Sudden-Emergency Grounds

12/01/2020

In Price v Austin, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued April 30, 2020 (Docket No. 346145), the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of summary disposition based on the sudden-emergency doctrine. The Court’s decision demonstrates that a defendant may rely on the doctrine to rebut the presumption of negligence that arises from a violation of a motor vehicle statute—and obtain summary disposition—if (1) the emergency was completely unexpected, and (2) there is clear, positive, and credible evidence supporting the sudden emergency.

Background on Price

Samuel Austin was driving a tractor-trailer on a state highway when he sustained a severe coughing fit and blacked out. His semi-truck crossed over the centerline into oncoming lanes, striking Arthur Price’s vehicle. Austin’s truck then came to rest several feet from the road in a cornfield.

Price sued Austin and his employer for damages. The defendants moved for summary disposition, arguing that they were relieved from liability based on the sudden-emergency doctrine. They presented a variety of evidence indicating that Austin’s health emergency was sudden and unexpected: There were no signs that Austin steered away from oncoming traffic. There were no skid marks from the truck. The truck’s GPS log showed that there was no braking. Austin had passed a Class A driving physical. And there was no evidence that he had cardiac symptoms near the time of the accident or that he had a previous episode of unconsciousness.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion. Price appealed.

The Court of Appeals’ Ruling

On appeal, Price contended that the defendants failed to present clear, positive, and credible evidence of a sudden emergency. Issues of credibility are always reserved for the jury, so Price primarily argued that Austin wasn’t credible. Price pointed to evidence that Austin told his physician a few days after the accident that he suffered intense pain in his chest and then blacked out. He argued that this statement was inconsistent with Price’s statements to officers at the accident scene and during his deposition that he suffered severe coughing and blacked out.

The Court of Appeals did not find this to be inconsistent. By all accounts, Austin suffered a sudden medical condition and unexpectedly blacked out, causing him to cross the highway. And the physical evidence supported Austin’s statements that he experienced a sudden medical emergency. Concluding that Austin couldn’t have done anything to avoid the accident, the Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition.

Judge Gleicher dissented. She believed that the credibility of Austin’s testimony and the application of the sudden-emergency doctrine were questions of fact for the jury. She also believed that the majority misunderstood the role of the sudden-emergency doctrine.

Takeaways for Third-Party Defendants

The existence of a sudden emergency can be a factually intensive analysis. So, whether there was a sudden emergency (not created by the defendant) is usually a question of fact for the jury. However, the defense in Price modeled a strategy for obtaining summary disposition. It framed its factual analysis in extensive, irrefutable detail, providing the necessary foundation for the Court of Appeals to uphold the trial court’s dismissal.

In the future, summary disposition may be possible if your defendant faced a sudden medical emergency or another unexpected emergency. Align and argue as many itemized facts as possible to irrefutably prove the existence of an unexpected, sudden emergency.

 


 

If you have questions about Price v Austin, please feel free to contact the author, Melanie T. Frazier. More information about Collins Einhorn’s General and Automotive Liability Practice Group is available here.

 


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