Emergency Doctrine in Tort Law

The NY State Court of Appeals recently ruled in Lifson v. City of Syracuse that a driver who struck and killed a pedestrian while being distracted by sun glare cannot invoke the “emergency doctrine.” An attentive driver would have anticipated occasional sun glare considering the time of the accident (4:05 pm on a winter day) and have no need to invoke the common-law emergency doctrine which “recognizes that when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, the actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context, provided the actor has not created the emergency.”

The trial judge instructed the jury that they could consider the sun glare an emergency situation. The jury found that the driver was faced with an emergency situation and acted reasonably in response, and dismissed the case against him. The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court, finding that the emergency instruction was properly given, as there was a reasonable view of the evidence showing that the sun glare was a sudden and unforeseen occurrence. The NY Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case to the Supreme Court for trial relying on Caristo v. Sanzone, 96 NY2d 172 (2001) which found the driver did not face an emergency situation where his car slid on ice. There, the court found that the driver was generally aware that he was driving in bad weather consisting of precipitation with a mix of snow, rain and hail. Thus the ice should not have been unexpected, and the driver was not faced with a sudden and unexpected emergency.

For a comprehensive analysis on the issue, researchers at Brooklyn Law School can access the American Law Reports Annotation, Instructions on Sudden Emergency in Motor Vehicle Cases, 80 A.L.R.2d 5 (Originally published in 1961). The series is available in print in the National Reading Room on the second floor or online in Westlaw and Lexis.