What If I Black Out and Cause a Car Accident?

If you experience a “sudden medical emergency" you may be able to avoid liability for a car accident.

By , Attorney · St. John's University School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Car crashes caused by medical emergencies are relatively rare. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 1.3 % of drivers had crashes triggered by blackouts and other medical conditions in a survey conducted from July 2005 to December 2007. Though rare, these types of crashes are serious and raise complicated legal issues.

The Sudden Medical Emergency Defense

Most states recognize some form of "sudden medical emergency defense," which can relieve drivers who experience medical emergencies from liability when they cause car accidents. In these states, if you black out and cause a car accident, you may be able to avoid financial responsibility for the accident, but you'll need to prove a few things first, including:

  • you suddenly lost consciousness
  • your loss of consciousness wasn't reasonably foreseeable, and
  • your loss of consciousness caused you to lose control of your vehicle.

Are Blackouts Reasonably Forseeable?

The issue of "foreseeability" usually raises the most questions when determining whether the sudden medical emergency defense applies to a blackout.

A driver who has no history of blackouts and then suddenly experiences one while driving, may be able to successfully raise the sudden medical emergency defense in a car accident lawsuit. After all, the driver had no reason to anticipate the blackout and couldn't have done anything to minimize the risk of experiencing one behind the wheel.

On the other hand, a driver who has a history of blacking out—or has an underlying condition that is known to cause these episodes from time to time—will have a much tougher time successfully arguing that the sudden medical emergency defense applies. Drivers who have been medically advised not to drive or who have experienced episodes of incapacity have a duty to stay off the road to keep people safe from harm.

Drivers who black out after consuming alcohol or drugs (including medications) can't raise the sudden medical emergency defense. A drug or alcohol-induced blackout isn't the same as passing out or fainting behind the wheel. Drunk and drugged drivers are financially responsible for crashes they cause and are likely to face criminal prosecution for driving under the influence.

Who Pays When a Blackout Causes a Car Accident?

In most car accident cases, the driver who is at fault for the accident pays for accident-related losses like vehicle damage and injuries. But the sudden medical emergency defense can leave car accident victims with no recourse against the person who technically caused the accident. When a driver successfully raises the defense, the people harmed by the incapacitated driver must typically rely on their own insurance to cover their losses, just as they would if an uninsured driver hit them. Incapacitated drivers must also, of course, rely on their own insurance to cover accident-related losses and bills.

In the dozen or so states that follow a "no-fault" car insurance system, everyone involved in the accident would rely on their own personal injury protection to cover expenses regardless of who caused the accident.

In states that don't recognize the sudden emergency defense, traditional rules of negligence and fault for an accident apply.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've blacked out while driving, talk to your doctor. Your health and well-being come first. Then talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you figure out whether the sudden medical emergency defense applies to your situation.

Learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident claim. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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