Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine

By on November 5th, 2010

Posted in Pennsylvania Law Monitor

Last month I addressed the defense of “sudden emergency.”  This month I would like to discuss the defense of “sudden medical emergency” or “unforseen unconsciousness” defense.  This is a defense which is generally rarely used in motor vehicle cases.
Under Pennsylvania law, the sudden medical emergency defense, also called the “unforseen unconsciousness” defense, is a complete defense to an action based on the asserted negligence of a defendant driver of a motor vehicle.  See Norvell License, 85 D. & C. 385, 387 (CCP Lycoming 1953).

It is generally recognized that an automobile operator who, while driving, is suddenly stricken by an unforeseeable loss of consciousness is not chargeable with negligence … However, if such an operator is aware that he is likely to lose consciousness, he may be charged with negligence.  The application of this exception is dependent, of course, upon the circumstances and conditions under which the attack occurs.

Freifield v. Hennessy, 353 F.2d 97, 98 (3d. Cir. 1965) (citations omitted).

In cases involving the sudden medical emergency defense or the “unforseen unconsciousness” defense, the defendant must produce evidence of the medical emergency as well as evidence that the medical emergency was not foreseeable.  See Pagano v. Magic Chef, Inc., 181 F. Supp. 146, 148 (E.D. Pa. 1960).  Generally, the cases where the sudden medical emergency defense or the “unforseen unconsciousness” defense have been used successfully involved major medical events such as a stroke, heart attack, death and epileptic seizure.  The medical records and testimony have to support the occurrence of a sudden medical emergency while operating a vehicle.  Moreover, the medical emergency must be unforeseeable.

For example, I offer the following hypothetical.  The driver did not sleep well and took medication which has a side effect of drowsiness.  The driver ingested this medication without reading the directions and without consulting with a physician.  The next day, the driver caused an accident because of a blackout.  Could the driver use the defense of “sudden medical emergency” ?  The answer is NO.   The fact that the driver blacked out was a foreseeable consequence of ingesting medication with a side effect of drowsiness and not getting enough rest the night before.

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