An unusual and terribly unfortunate auto accident case from New York has recently garnered a lot of media attention. But there is a legal point to the case which is important everywhere, including Florida.
The New York case began when a young woman from Manhattan was driving her friends from the Jersey Shore back toward the New York City area. While she drove, one of her backseat passengers reached forward and untied the strings of her bikini top. The bikini top fell, the driver took her hands off the wheel to cover up, and the car crashed and flipped. The backseat prankster was killed, and several other passengers in the car were injured.
One of the injured backseat passengers then sued the driver. New York media had a field day, covering the story with all types of sophomoric wordplay not worth repeating.
The first and most obvious lesson is that playing those kinds of jokes on drivers is a terrible idea. Creating any type of distraction for a highway driver is no laughing matter, and as the case proves, can result in tragedy.
The second lesson is that a driver distracted in this way has a possible defense to fault for a car accident. In limited circumstances, a driver can be excused from fault if something truly unexpected happens which causes them to crash. A jury cleared the young woman driver in the New York case for that reason, and an appeals court upheld that verdict.
The appeals court decision was not just an endorsement of some quaint, Victorian notion about a young woman’s modesty. The court actually found that the driver’s fallen bikini top created “a sudden and unforeseen emergency.” The court found the emergency made it reasonable for her to take her hands off the wheel. What would have been negligent in most circumstances was not in that particular situation.
The sudden emergency doctrine is a well-established doctrine in the law of many states, including Florida. A fallen bikini top is one possible emergency, but there are many others. One can claim this defense if a child or animal darts into the street ahead of them, or a car ahead slams on its brakes for no reason. People have even tried to claim the defense when they are distracted by sneezing or a bee buzzing in the car around them.
However, the most common basis for a “sudden emergency” defense is an unanticipated medical event, like fainting or a heart attack. In our office, we’ve had cases where apparently negligent drivers claim to have blacked out without warning. They have tried to use this claim as a complete defense to fault.
Accident victims are understandably upset when they hear a defendant is trying to avoid responsibility for a crash just by claiming they blacked out. Fortunately, there are ways to fight back.
Often, we’ve found that a driver who claims a blackout was unexpected really could have expected it after all. The driver might have a medical condition, such as epilepsy or diabetes, which made them more likely to lose consciousness behind the wheel. They might have even had the same thing happen before. In such cases, one cannot say that a blackout is really a surprise.
In other cases, other occupants of the car might disagree that their driver passed out. The driver might admit fault at the scene before contriving a blackout defense. If the apparently at-fault driver gets medical treatment, there might also be a conspicuous absence of medical information about an alleged blackout.
To conclude, a sudden emergency defense can be legitimate under some circumstances. However, a lawyer faced with such a defense should always investigate to make sure it is not just a get-out-of- jail-free-card being played by the defense.
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