Negligence & the “Sudden Emergency” Defense

The law of negligence is based on the standard of a reasonable person, defined as a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability. The flexibility in this standard carries over to the defense of “sudden emergency.” The sudden emergency doctrine is an affirmative defense to negligence or comparative negligence which recognizes that the law does not require the same accuracy of judgment of a person who has innocently been deprived of time to deliberate their actions as it imposes on someone who has the opportunity for reflection.  

What You Have to Prove

In order to invoke the doctrine in Massachusetts, a party must establish (1) that the appearance of the danger or peril was so imminent that they had no time for deliberation; (2) that the situation relied upon to excuse any failure to exercise due care was not created by their own negligence; and (3) that the conduct under the circumstances was such as the law requires of an ordinarily prudent person under like or similar circumstances. While the question of sudden emergency is generally an issue for the determination of the jury, the threshold issue of whether the doctrine applies and warrants a jury instruction rests with the court.

Case of Sudden Emergency

In one Massachusetts case, the sudden emergency doctrine was used to award a woman compensation for injuries she sustained in what initially appeared to be a single car accident. In that case, a defendant driver ran out of gas on a hill on a December evening and stopped in the center of his lane on a two-way road. After waiting a few minutes, the driver of the car following crossed over into the other lane to pass the stopped vehicle. At the same time, the plaintiff, driving a car in the opposite direction, crested the hill and “saw nothing but headlights and two of them were in her lane.” Terrified and wanting to avoid a head-on collision, she drove to the right, went off the road, and struck a tree at a point about opposite the defendant’s stopped car, sustaining serious injuries. At no time did any car come in contact with another. Following trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff.

Created Dangerous Condition

In upholding the verdict, the Supreme Judicial Court determined that sufficient evidence existed to find the defendant negligent in creating the dangerous situation and that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. On the issue of sudden emergency, the court determined that in the circumstances the plaintiff made a split-second decision to go off the road rather than risk a head on collision. The court found that though in retrospect it might appear that the plaintiff’s choice was mistaken, it could not be said as a matter of law that at the time she made the choice, in view of the need of speedy decision and action, it was not a prudent one under the circumstances of the case.


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If you or a loved one was injured because of someone’s negligence, contact Attorney Allison now for a free consultation by calling 978-740-9433 or filling out our free consultation form. We look forward to speaking with you about your claim.