Michigan Appellate Courts Help Define ‘Sudden Emergency’ in Motor Vehicle Liability Cases

The warmer temperatures have begun their annual journey south, the trees are changing colors, cider and donuts are being consumed and the first snowflakes will soon follow.

With the change of seasons in Michigan comes deer darting out into the roads, wind and rain, wet roads, and consequently, auto accidents. But if a deer runs across the road and you slam on the brakes, or, alternatively, you swerve into another vehicle, resulting in a collision, can this be considered “negligence?”

If you slide into another vehicle on wet or icy roads, will the natural conditions excuse you and, by substitution, your insurance company, of liability? Not necessarily. As the seasons change, it is a good time to learn and/or review what may or may not fall under the umbrella of what is known as a “sudden emergency.”

In Michigan, an individual must operate his vehicle in a careful and prudent manner, at a reasonable and proper speed, while having due regard to the surface of the highway, as well as any other conditions existing at the time. Additionally, an individual must operate the vehicle at a speed that will permit a stop within the assured, clear distance ahead.

All states have adopted a law similar to the above, requiring drivers to operate their vehicles in a prudent manner considering the conditions. As such, snowy or rainy conditions and slick roads are generally not a complete defense and would not pass as a “sudden emergency.” A driver “must make reasonable allowance for traffic conditions, for fog, snow, or other adverse weather conditions, and for curves and road conditions.” DePriest v Kooiman, 379 Mich 44, 46; 149 NW2d 449 (1967).

If one knows, or has reason to know, that the road surface and/or outdoor conditions are atypical or dangerous, that individual must drive in a careful and prudent manner, at a reasonable and proper speed, even if that means driving well below the speed limit.

However, there are certain situations where a driver may be excused from not acting in a careful and prudent panner. “[A] driver is not obliged “to guard against every conceivable result, to take extravagant precautions, to exercise undue care ....” Hale v Cooper, 271 Mich 348, 354; 261 NW 54 (1935).

Michigan implemented a doctrine, known as the “sudden emergency doctrine,” in Socony Vacuum Oil Co v Marvin, 313 Mich 528; 21 NW2d 841 (1946), which excuses conduct that would, in other circumstances, be considered negligent because the pressures attendant to an emergency that develop without warning and require an immediate response, deprives even an ordinarily prudent person of the opportunity to take reasonable action to avoid a danger.

As the Socony court explained, “[O]ne who suddenly finds himself in a place of danger, and is required to act without time to consider the best means that may be adopted to avoid the impending danger is not guilty of negligence if he fails to adopt what subsequently and upon reflection may appear to have been a better method...”.

In order to fall under the sudden emergency doctrine, the circumstances causing the accident must have been “unusual” or “unsuspected.” Vander Laan v Miedema 385 Mich 226 (1971). The term “unusual” means that the facts of the case vary from everyday traffic situations or routines, or alternatively, was not in clear view for any significant length of time and was “totally unexpected.”   

Given how the courts have defined a “sudden emergency,” it is evident that the emergency must be atypical and unpredictable. A driver who is aware that roads are icy because of an extreme drop in temperature that occurred overnight, but yet, is unable to stop in an assured distance before rear-ending another vehicle, is unlikely to succeed on a “sudden emergency” defense. Likewise, obvious and typical snowy conditions that cause a driver to lose control of his vehicle and cause an accident are also likely to be unsuccessful with a “sudden emergency” defense.

However, that is not to say that the weather will never result in a “sudden emergency.” The Michigan Court of Appeals was presented with a case where a defendant was driving behind a plaintiff when another car slammed into the guard rail, creating a large cloud of snow and ultimately impacting the defendant’s vision, causing him to rear end the plaintiff. The defendant filed a motion for summary disposition based on the doctrine of sudden emergency, and the trial court granted the motion, finding that the cloud of snow caused by another driver slamming into the guard rail created an unsuspected sudden emergency. The appellate court upheld the decision.

Likewise, the appellate court has addressed the issue of “black ice” and has concluded that this natural occurrence can be unsuspected and the cause for a “sudden emergency.” The appellate court held that, although “it is not unusual for Michigan roads to be icy in the winter, this does not mean that icy patches cannot be unsuspected.” Young v Flood, 182 Mich App 538, 543; 452 NW2d 869 (1990). The appellate court went on to state that “Michigan roads are not ice-covered and dangerously slippery all winter long.”  The issue of whether the icy conditions was a sudden emergency will generally come down to whether it was sudden and/or unexpected.

If you have ever been driving down the road and encountered a deer shoot out in front of your vehicle, you would know that it is difficult to describe anything more sudden and unexpected than that. The appellate court agrees, as they have held that a deer bolting out into the road constitutes a sudden emergency.  Haltom v. Burleson,  6 Mich App 89, 148 NW2d 252 (1967). In a more recent case, the appellate court reiterated that it accepts the proposition that a deer bolting into a roadway out of nowhere presents a sudden emergency, implicating the doctrine.

What if the “sudden” event causing an accident occurs inside the vehicle, such as a driver experiencing a medical issue? The Michigan courts have previously dealt with cases of a “sudden, unexpected blackout” or seizure experienced by a driver. In those cases, the courts have discussed that such incidents could potentially constitute a sudden emergency if the blackout was “totally unexpected.” 

The Michigan Supreme Court addressed this issue in White v. Taylor Distributing Co., Inc. 482 Mich. 136. (2008). In that case, a defendant rear-ended another vehicle and claimed that he blacked out on the exit ramp before striking the other vehicle. The Supreme Court ruled that although a sudden, unexpected blackout could present a sudden emergency sufficient to rebut the statutory presumption, the sudden emergency sufficient to remove the statutory presumption must be “totally unexpected.”

The Supreme Court specifically mentioned that if a defendant felt dizzy “a couple of minutes” before blacking out, then perhaps his subsequent emergency was not clearly sudden under the circumstances. Further, if a driver did not feel well but continued driving or felt ill even a few minutes before he collided with a plaintiff, then the emergency may well have been of his own making, and not a sudden emergency.

By now, it should be plainly obvious that a sudden emergency is as it sounds: a sudden emergency. It occurs in a situation that is unanticipated and unusual. It cannot be brought about by one’s own negligence or carelessness. Whether one’s actions are excused due to a sudden emergency will boil down to the facts and circumstances present at the time of the accident. Nevertheless, as we motor along through the fall toward winter, drive cautiously, pay attention to your surroundings and stay safe!

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