How the Emergency Doctrine Applies or Does Not A

New York common law recognizes the “emergency doctrine,” which, in the context of an automobile accident, means a driver is not considered negligent if he or she responds to a “sudden and unexpected circumstance” in a “reasonable and prudent” manner. Of course, the emergency doctrine only applies if the person invoking it is not also responsible for causing the emergency.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Rochester recently considered the application of the emergency doctrine in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a three-vehicle accident. The appeals court held the doctrine did not apply to one of the defendant drivers. The court granted summary judgment to a second defendant driver, although the justices noted the emergency doctrine was “not essential to our analysis.”

Colangelo v. Marriott

The accident occurred on a four-lane road in the town of Rome. A pickup truck was driving behind a garbage truck on the left eastbound lane. A minivan was driving in the right eastbound lane. As it approached a red light, the pickup truck attempted to stop, but its brakes failed. The driver swerved into the right lane to avoid colliding with the garbage truck, which caused the pickup truck to rear-end the minivan. The minivan subsequently spun into the left lane, causing a second collision with the garbage truck.

The driver of the minivan (and his passenger) sued the drivers and owners of the other two vehicles for negligence. The Oneida County Supreme Court denied all defendants' motions for summary judgment. In an opinion issued August 8 of this year, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, reversed as to the garbage truck defendants, but not the pickup truck defendants.

With respect to the garbage truck, the Appellate Division held that, since the vehicle had the right-of-way under New York law, its driver “is deemed free of negligence absent proof of speeding or some other act of negligence.” There were no such allegations or evidence, and therefore the garbage truck and its owner were entitled to summary judgment. The Appellate Division added that, while the garbage truck defendants further relied on the emergency doctrine, it was not necessary to address this point given the right-of-way.

As for the pickup truck, the Appellate Division found those defendants could not invoke the emergency doctrine to prevail on summary judgment. There were still disputed issues of fact for a jury to resolve, such as whether the pickup truck's owners were negligent in maintaining their vehicle. If the plaintiffs can show these defendants should have known of their truck's faulty brakes—and that they took no action to rectify the situation prior to the accident—then the emergency doctrine would not absolve them of liability.

Experience is Essential

Many personal injury lawsuits are won or lost at the summary judgment stage, even before a jury has a chance to hear the facts. That is why it is always important to work with an experienced New York personal injury lawyer who understands the law and its application to a given accident.