Speeding For An Emergency? Not So Fast...

Does the unforeseeable and unexpected shooting of someone in your motor vehicle and the need to transport him/her to the hospital immediately create a “sudden emergency?”

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision held that there remained a genuine issue of material fact concerning the applicability of the sudden-emergency doctrine in such situations.

In Salem v Saleh, the plaintiff was a backseat passenger in a car being driven by the defendant. The defendant’s car was leaving a drag-racing area at night when a fellow passenger was shot. The group made the decision to drive directly to the hospital. Estimates of the car’s speed varied between 90 and 160 miles per hour. When the defendant’s car got within 300 feet of the hospital, it hit a pothole and rolled over eight to 10 times.

The defendant argued that any negligence he committed should be excused, because he was responding to a medical emergency and speeding to the hospital to try to save the decedent’s life. The trial court agreed, stating: “[I]f there’s any case, the poster child, if you will, for sudden emergency, it’s this case.” 

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erroneously applied the sudden emergency-doctrine.   

The Michigan Court of Appeals noted that the sudden emergency doctrine excuses negligent conduct because of an emergency that requires an immediate response. The doctrine does not apply, however, when the sudden emergency is brought about by a defendant’s own negligence.

The court held that “a rational jury could determine that defendant acted reasonably and prudently.” On the other hand, the court noted, “a rational jury could determine that despite being face with a sudden emergency, defendant acted unreasonably by exceeding the speed limit to such a great extent, especially at nighttime with limited sight distances.” 

The dissent found that the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances, noting:  “After he learned the decedent had been shot, defendant found the passenger ‘in danger,’ and was required to act in the chaotic moments that ensued - with the encouragement of his companions, including plaintiff - without time to consider what might have been better means to avoid the impending danger.”

The appellate court’s ability to see how juries might struggle with the “need for speed” argument in emergency cases like this one, makes such defenses precarious at best.

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