Rear-end collisions are one of the most common types of car accidents. Under New York law, if a moving vehicle hits a stopped vehicle from behind, there is a presumption that the rear driver is at fault for the accident. This presumption can be rebutted, however, under what is known as the emergency defense doctrine. The doctrine applies when the rear driver is “faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration,” and consequently must “make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct.”
Judges Disagree Over Defendant’s Claims Regarding Emergency
The emergency defense doctrine is not absolute. If the rear driver created the emergency or failed to act reasonably, he or she can still be held responsible for the accident. But asserting the doctrine may allow a defendant to avoid what would otherwise be an easy grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
A recent decision by a divided panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, illustrates this point. In this case, the plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging the latter was responsible for a rear-end collision that occurred in the Bronx. The defendant said in an affidavit that he was driving at a speed of approximately 20 miles per hour when another vehicle coming from the opposite direction “suddenly turned left in front of him.” The defendant then swerved to the right to avoid hitting that vehicle, but in doing so he nearly hit a subway column. This forced the defendant to quickly swerve back to the left, at which point he struck the plaintiff’s car.
The First Department held that based on the defendant’s affidavit, he could present an emergency defense to a jury. Two judges dissented, arguing the defendant’s “unsupported assertion” was not enough for him to escape liability. The dissent maintained the only plausible explanation for the accident was that the defendant was driving too fast and failed to maintain a sufficient distance between his truck and the vehicle in front of him, as required by New York traffic safety rules. The majority said the dissent’s conclusions were “speculative” and explained that “in an emergency situation, a driver shall not be held to the same standard of care that would be applied to a driver in a nonemergency situation.” The task for the jury will be to decide whether the defendant’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances.