How the "Emergency Doctrine" Applies to Accident Lawsuits

Under New York common law, a person is not liable for negligence if he or she is “confronted with a sudden emergency situation” and acts in a “reasonable and prudent” manner, even if their decision results in injury to another. This “emergency doctrine” is often invoked by defendants in personal injury lawsuits. But it is not appropriate in every case, as a recent decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department, illustrates.

Delva v. New York City Transit Authority

In this case, a 14-year-old boy was crossing at a street intersection in Brooklyn when he was hit by a New York City bus. The boy and his father sued the Transit Authority to recover damages. The case was tried before a jury in Brooklyn Supreme Court, which ruled for the plaintiffs on the issue of liability.

The city appealed, arguing the trial judge should have instructed the jury with respect to the emergency doctrine. The city's position was the boy's presence in the crosswalk constituted an emergency situation requiring the driver to react immediately. But as the Second Department explained, that is not a true emergency: “Here, the record demonstrates that [the victim's] presence in the crosswalk should reasonably have been anticipated in that it was neither sudden nor unexpected under the circumstances.”

As the New York Court of Appeals explained in a 2001 decision, a trial judge does not need to charge the jury on the emergency doctrine just because a defendant demands it. Rather, the trial judge must “make the threshold determination that there is some reasonable view of the evidence supporting the occurrence of a 'qualifying emergency'.” In the 2001 case, the court of appeals considered whether icy road conditions constituted a qualifying emergency. It did not, the majority said, because the defendant was well aware of the poor weather as he was driving; in this context, the road conditions were not “sudden and unforeseen.”

Returning to the present case, the Second Department affirmed the trial judge's decision not to instruct on the emergency doctrine. The appeals court also rejected the city's other grounds of appeal. Notably, the city argued the trial judge erred in allowing the jury to learn about the bus driver's criminal record. In 2012, after the accident took place, the driver was convicted in New Jersey state court on charges of illegal firearms possession. The Second Department said the conviction was relevant to the credibility of the bus driver's testimony and therefore admissible as evidence in this case.

Beware False “Emergencies”

The emergency doctrine is just one example of the type of defense a party might raise in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a motor vehicle accident. If you are the victim of such an accident, it is therefore essential you work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney who will fight to ensure the trial and appeals courts do not fall for unjustified “emergency” claims. Contact our office today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.