Who pays the bills when a crash or collision happens because a driver lost consciousness or had another medical emergency?
Accidents happen, even to careful drivers who are trying to do everything “right.” You might misjudge speed, brake too slowly, or make other errors that cause a collision.
Even though you were being careful, avoiding distraction, and paying attention to the road, sometimes you could still cause an accident, which means that (depending on what state you’re in) you could be responsible for paying damages for your own costs and the costs of any other injured person.
But what if the accident was legitimately out of your control... for instance, you had a medical emergency that caused you to lose consciousness, which is what caused you to lose control of your vehicle? Should you still have to pay for those damages—or risk an increase in your insurance premium as a result?
The Sudden Medical Emergency Defense
In most states, the Sudden Medical Emergency Defense can relieve a driver of liability for an accident if it was caused by an unforeseen medical emergency.
The main idea behind personal injury law is that a person can be held responsible for the costs associated with the accident because they were negligent. The sudden medical emergency defense can absolve someone from liability because a person who suffers a medical event did not negligently cause the accident.
What is “foreseeability”?
Foreseeability is a concept in the law that is used to determine whether the defendant (liable party) could have reasonably anticipated that their action or failure to act would cause another person to be injured.
A person is not liable for another person’s injury if the type of harm that occurred does not reasonably flow from the act of negligence.
The person who causes an accident as a result of a medical emergency would need to prove that each of the following occurred:
- They suddenly lost consciousness,
- The loss of consciousness caused them to lose control of the vehicle, and
- The loss of consciousness was caused by an unforeseeable medical event.
It also must be proven that the medical event was sudden, meaning that the driver had no opportunity to mitigate the circumstance.
In other words, if the driver later says, “I felt dizzy for a few moments before I passed out,” or “My vision blurred, and then I fainted,” it suggests that person could have pulled off the road before the accident happened. But if they simply lose consciousness with no warning, they might be able to have a defense to liability.
Types of medical emergencies that could leave a driver incapacitated
- Brain aneurysm
- Heart attack
- Fainting/blacking out
Continuing to drive when experiencing medical problems would be negligent because it’s reasonable to assume that your condition could put other people in danger.
In other words, if the court finds that you were aware of symptoms and ignored them (or chose to drive, anyway), then you would likely be negligent in causing the accident.
Your personal health history and the sudden medical emergency defense
Is your medical history anyone else’s business?
Yes, if it could have caused an accident.
If you intend to use the sudden medical emergency defense, expect that you’ll be asked for any medical history that could be relevant.
For instance, if the accident was caused by a heart attack and your medical records indicate a history of heart problems, it could have been foreseeable that you could lose consciousness while driving.
Another example is if you have diabetes. If you didn’t eat during the day and low blood sugar causes you to pass out while driving, that’s another situation when you could be considered negligent.
If you’re aware of a medical condition that could result in your unexpectedly losing consciousness or functioning, and you failed to take the reasonable precautions based on your doctor’s guidance, you would be considered negligent if that condition causes you to have an accident.
Can your health history increase your liability?
There are circumstances when your medical history could mean that you bear full liability for an accident.
For instance, if you were diagnosed with a particular condition and one of the following happened, then you may be held liable:
- You did not follow up with your medical provider to continue care or treatment.
- You did not follow a prescribed treatment, such as medication that would control the condition.
- You were restricted from driving but did so anyway (i.e. against the doctor’s orders).
Who is financially responsible when a medical event causes an accident?
There are 2 ways to look at this question:
- The plaintiff (injured person) will be concerned about who is paying their bills for an accident they didn’t cause and where they were the victim.
- The defendant (the person who caused the accident) might feel as though they should not be financially responsible if the accident happened due to an unforeseeable medical emergency, even though they caused it.
Ultimately, liability depends partly on whether you’re in a no-fault state or an at-fault state.
In no-fault states, anyone involved in an accident would turn to their own insurance company to cover expenses, regardless of who was at fault.
In an at-fault state, it’s up to the person who caused the accident to pay for damages. If a defendant is successful with the sudden medical emergency defense, a plaintiff can likely turn to their own insurance for coverage, just as they would in an uninsured motorist situation.
What evidence proves the sudden medical emergency defense?
Both parties’ lawyers will request the at-fault driver’s medical records. They will determine if:
- The driver had pre-existing medical conditions
- The driver was taking the medication for their condition
- There were any medical restrictions in effect at the time of the accident
State laws for the sudden medical emergency defense
One way a lawyer can assert a defense is by providing jury instruction. This means if a lawsuit makes it to court, the jury can be advised that there’s a specific defense or doctrine available if the jury thinks it’s warranted in that circumstance.
Here’s how Sudden Medical Emergency defenses are handled in each state:
|State||Law for Sudden Medical Emergency Defense||How it works|
|Alabama||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||If a motorist is in an emergency situation, they should act as a reasonable person would in the same circumstance.|
|Alaska||Does not recognize a Sudden Medical Emergency defense||The standard of care is still that of a reasonable person in a similar circumstance.|
|Arizona||Sudden Incapacitation Defense||If the driver's judgment is overpowered or they are incapable of controlling the vehicle because of an act of God or emergency, they are not negligent.|
|Arkansas||Unavoidable Accident Defense||This could be a defense if the accident is not caused by the negligence of either party.|
|California||Doctrine of Imminent Peril||If a person has an emergency, they are not held to the same standard of care as they would be absent the circumstances.|
|Colorado||There is no longer a sudden emergency doctrine in Colorado||The court would look at all evidence to determine liability.|
|Connecticut||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||A driver is not assumed to be negligent after a sudden medical event if they do not have a warning of their condition.|
|Delaware||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||Where a driver of a vehicle suddenly becomes physically or mentally incapacitated without warning, they are not liable for an accident.|
|Washington, D.C.||Act of God Defense||D.C. offers a defense when the force of nature is uncontrolled and uninfluenced by humans and could not be prevented or avoided.|
|Florida||Sudden and Unexpected Loss of Capacity Defense||The operator of an automobile who unexpectedly loses consciousness or becomes incapacitated is not negligent.|
|Georgia||Act of God Defense||A driver who suffers an unforeseeable illness that causes them to suddenly lose consciousness and control of the automobile is not negligent.|
|Hawaii||Sudden Emergency Defense not recognized||A person generally owes a duty to all foreseeable plaintiffs who are subjected to an unreasonable risk of harm by a person’s actions.|
|Idaho||Sudden Emergency Defense is discouraged||This should not be a jury instruction if the circumstance can be covered by the general negligence standard.|
|Illinois||Act of God Instruction||A defendant can be found not negligent if the Act of God leaves them unable to control their vehicle|
|Indiana||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||To use this defense, the driver must prove their loss of consciousness by a preponderance of the evidence. They must demonstrate that it was without fair warning and they could not have used reasonable precautions.|
|Iowa||Sudden Emergency Defense||If a motorist is in an emergency situation, they should act as a reasonable person would in the same circumstance.|
|Kansas||No Sudden Emergency Instruction||A lawyer may argue this defense for their client, but it cannot be presented as a jury instruction.|
|Kentucky||Blackout Defense||If a driver suffers an unforeseeable event that leaves them incapacitated while driver, they can use that as a defense to liability.|
|Louisiana||Defense of Sudden Unconsciousness||Sudden or momentary loss of consciousness while driving is a complete defense to an action based on negligence if such loss of consciousness was not foreseeable.|
|Maine||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||If a motorist is in an emergency situation, they should act as a reasonable person would in the same circumstance.|
|Maryland||Defense of Unanticipated Unconsciousness||A driver is not liable for an accident if they suddenly lose consciousness while driving.|
|Massachusetts||Sudden Medical Emergency Defense||A driver is not liable if they suffer a medical event that leaves them without the capacity to drive.|
|Michigan||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||If the driver uses reasonable judgment, they are not negligent if the emergency was not caused by negligence.|
|Minnesota||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||The sudden emergency doctrine applies if the emergency is not caused by the defendant.|
|Mississippi||Loss of Consciousness Defense||A driver is not negligent if they lose consciousness and become unable to control the vehicle.|
|Missouri||Act of God Defense||Missouri does not recognize sudden medical emergencies as a defense, but it does recognize an “act of God.”|
|Montana||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||This instruction is provided if there was an emergency that was not created by the driver and that a reasonable person would have taken action in the same circumstance.|
|Nebraska||Loss of Consciousness Defense||This defense is available if a person suddenly loses consciousness out of their own control.|
|Nevada||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||This defense is only appropriate when an unexpected condition confronts the driver while they are exercising reasonable care.|
|New Hampshire||Emergency Doctrine||If the defendant was forced to take immediate action in an emergency that they did not create (for instance, the defendant caused an accident based on an emergency happening outside the vehicle), then this doctrine may apply.|
|New Jersey||Sudden Emergency Doctrine||If the defendant was forced to take immediate action in an emergency that they did not create, then this defense can be used.|
|New Mexico||Sudden Emergency Doctrine not recognized||New Mexico does not employ this defense.|
|New York||Sudden Medical Emergency||If the medical emergency was not foreseeable, the defendant is not negligent.|
|North Carolina||Sudden Incapacitation Defense||A driver is not negligent if they have a sudden medical emergency that causes them to lose control of the vehicle.|
|North Dakota||Sudden Emergency Defense or Unavoidable Accident Defense||If suddenly faced with a dangerous situation the person did not create, they are not held to the same accuracy of judgment as one would be if there were time for deliberation.|
|Ohio||Blackout Defense or Lehman Rule||A driver is not negligent if they have a sudden medical emergency that causes them to lose control of the vehicle.|
|Oklahoma||Unavoidable Accident Defense||A driver is not negligent if they have a sudden medical emergency that causes them to lose control of the vehicle.|
|Oregon||Sudden Emergency Defense|
|Pennsylvania||Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine|
|Rhode Island||Sudden Emergency Defense|
|South Carolina||Sudden Unforeseeable Incapacity Defense or Imminent Peril Doctrine|
|South Dakota||Legal Excuse Doctrine|
|Tennessee||Sudden Loss of Consciousness Defense|
|Texas||Unavoidable Accident Defense or Act of God Defense|
|Utah||No defense||This is not a defense used in Utah.|
|Vermont||Sudden Emergency Doctrine|
|Virginia||Sudden Medical Emergency Defense|
|Washington||Unavoidable Accident Instruction or Sudden Mental Incapacity Defense|
|West Virginia||Sudden Emergency Doctrine|
|Wisconsin||Emergency Doctrine||A driver is not liable for his actions when that person is faced with a sudden emergency he or she did not create.|
|Wyoming||Sudden Emergency Doctrine|
If you were injured as a result of another driver’s sudden medical emergency, or if you suffered a sudden medical event that resulted in an accident, an experienced lawyer is the best person to advise you on how to proceed and protect your financial interests.