Sudden Emergency and Unavoidable Accident are two legal doctrines that commonly limit a plaintiff’s ability to recover from defendants. Sudden emergency refers to when a defendant had to react quickly to a change in conditions. Unavoidable accident refers to an incident that was no one’s fault. They are often mentioned and pleaded together as though they are the same thing, but they are not. They are discussed here separately, sudden emergency first.
In South Carolina, the courts recognize that under emergency circumstances individuals should not be held to the same level of care as individuals who act without the time pressure of an emergency situation. Thus, when a defendant is faced with a sudden emergency, the defendant’s actions will not be held to the standard of what a reasonably prudent driver would have done under ordinary circumstances, but rather to the standard of what a reasonably prudent driver would do under the specific emergency. So, even if the defendant didn’t take the wisest actions after the emergency, as long as they are actions that a reasonably prudent person could have taken, they are not considered negligent.
The courts unhelpfully define it as a “sudden or unexpected event or combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action.” So, a sudden emergency is basically just what you would expect an emergency to be. Also, the sudden emergency must not have not been brought about by the defendant’s own actions or negligence.
Although referred to as a defense, it isn’t a true defense, i.e. proof of a sudden emergency does not mean that the plaintiff will necessarily have no remedy. This is a good thing for plaintiffs. Even if a judge believes that reasonable people could not disagree as to whether there was a sudden emergency, the judge must still submit the case to the jury.
Today, in states like South Carolina, where comparative, not contributory, negligence is the rule, sudden emergency acts mostly for limiting the liability of defendants, but not in a rigid rule kind of way. Instead of simply dismissing the case against the defendant, the judge will simply instruct the jury to take into consideration the sudden emergency, and the fact of the sudden emergency will be thrown into the pot with the rest of the facts to determine how negligent the defendant was if at all. Haley v. Brown, (S.C. Ct. App. 2006). Since the jury will have to consider the conditions under which the defendant acted, the jury will likely come back with a lower verdict if they find the defendant guilty at all.
Unavoidable accident is the doctrine that no one is liable in a negligence suit for a pure or unavoidable accident. Basically, if no human acted negligently or willfully to cause anything that could have caused the accident, it fits within this doctrine. It is a “pure” accident in the sense, it happened by chance, not an accident in the sense of an "oops."
These are relatively rare, and if the jury is asked to consider whether there was an unavoidable accident when the evidence presented at trial does not tend to show that there was an unavoidable accident, the plaintiff has grounds to get a new trial. The thinking here is that once you introduce the idea to the jury that it may have been just an “accident” when of course no one intended to get into a car wreck poisons the jury against finding anyone at fault. For this reason, many states, but not South Carolina, have heavily criticized or abandoned the unavoidable accident doctrine altogether.
Robert Reeves, a personal injury lawyer with Reeves, Aiken, & Hightower practices in law in South Carolina.