In many car accident cases, the issue of fault is pretty straightforward -- the other driver ran a red light, or couldn't stop in time and rear-ended your vehicle, for example. But in situations where the other driver suffered a medical emergency just before the accident, liability is not so simple.
Most states recognize the “sudden medical emergency defense,” which can relieve a driver from liability if they suffer an unforeseen medical emergency that causes a car accident. The rationale for this is that a person who suffers a sudden medical emergency has not acted negligently and therefore should not be held responsible for an accident caused by something that was beyond their control, and which they couldn't have foreseen. (Remember, fault for a car accident is almost always answered by the question: Who was negligent in connection with the crash?)
States come down a little differently on the requirements, but a driver who claims to have suffered a sudden medical emergency usually has the burden of proof to show the following:
If the driver is successful in proving these things, they (usually meaning their insurance company) may be off the financial hook for any injuries and/or vehicle damage caused by the accident.
Let's take a closer look at some of these elements.
The suddenness of the medical emergency must be established. A driver who suffers a “sudden” medical emergency is overcome and often rendered unconscious by an entirely unforeseeable medical event. This driver has no opportunity to mitigate the medical emergency.
If the at-fault driver experienced symptoms indicating the onset of a medical emergency, the prudent course of action is to pull over to the side of the road rather than put others in danger by continuing to drive. When symptoms are present and ignored, the medical emergency cannot be considered “sudden.”
There are also questions of foreseeability when determining whether the sudden medial emergency defense applies to a certain car accident scenario. If a driver has no history of heart issues, but suffers a heart attack while driving, they may be able to successfully assert the defense, since there was no reason to anticipate the heart episode. Similarly, a driver who suffers a sudden drop in blood pressure and blacks out with no history of syncopal episodes will also likely be able to successfully assert the defense.
On the other hand, a driver with a history of heart problems, who had been instructed by their physician not to drive, will almost certainly not be able to successfully assert the "sudden medical emergency" defense, as they had a reason to anticipate that they might black out or otherwise suffer a medical emergency while driving. Another instance where the defense would be unsuccessful is where the at-fault driver is a diabetic who failed to eat all day and then passed out behind the wheel due to low blood sugar. In these situations, it would likely be deemed reasonably foreseeable that these drivers could suffer medical emergencies while driving, meaning they could be found negligent in connection with any resulting accident.
If it's successfully employed by the other driver in a car accident lawsuit or insurance claim, the "sudden medical emergency" defense can leave you with no source of recovery for legitimate car accident injuries and other losses. The converse argument here is that it would be unfair to hold a driver legally accountable for an unforeseeable, uncontrollable event.
There are some states that do not recognize the "sudden medical emergency" defense in a car accident case. And about a dozen states also follow a "no-fault" car insurance system, where your own insurance will pay for your injuries and other losses (up to a certain financial threshold) after a car accident, regardless of the cause. And even in states that do allow the "sudden medical emergency" defense, as long as you have your own car insurance policy in place, you can almost always turn to that coverage to pay your medical and car repair bills after an accident -- after paying any applicable deductible, of course.
If you suffer a medical emergency and cause an accident, you should immediately notify your insurance company. You may also want to consult a physician to determine what caused the medical emergency, and to find out whether it is safe and reasonable to continue driving.
And if you have been involved in an accident where the at-fault driver is claiming a black out or sudden medical emergency, it may be time to talk to an experienced attorney to make sure your rights are protected.