Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a lawsuit stemming from a fatal California car accident. The record indicates that the victim was driving around 70 miles per hour on a highway in the same lane as the defendant. The defendant saw a car stopped in the middle of the highway in front of him and moved over to pass the stopped vehicle. When the defendant was about 300 feet past the car, he saw the victim’s car collide with the stopped vehicle. The collision caused the victim’s car to leave the lane it was in, colliding with another vehicle. The defendant saw the accident in his rear-view mirror, and called 911.
The victim’s representative filed a complaint against several parties, including the driver of the stopped car, the driver of the car that hit the victim, the owner of the stopped vehicle, and the owner of the vehicle that hit the victim. Sometime after the original complaint, the plaintiff added the defendant as a party, reasoning that the defendant’s late lane change prevented the victim from noticing the vehicle stopped in the middle of the road. In response, the defendant cited California’s sudden emergency doctrine. The trial court agreed that the doctrine provided the defendant with a complete defense, and the plaintiff appealed.
California’s “sudden emergency” or “imminent peril” doctrine protects defendants from liability in a negligence lawsuit. It typically applies when a defendant, who was otherwise acting with reasonable care, is suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an emergency that the defendant did not cause. To prevail on this defense, a defendant must establish three main elements. A defendant must prove that the events arose when there was a sudden emergency where someone was in actual or imminent injury, the defendant did not cause the emergency, and the defendant acted with due care, even if an alternative action was safer.