May 3, 2021

Sudden Emergency and Unavoidable Accident Defense

Written by: Megan Champagne

Accidents happen every day. The cause of those accidents can be due to the negligence of another person, our own negligence, or an event that is out of our control. Sometimes car accidents happen because a driver, despite driving safely and responsibly, is faced with a sudden and unexpected event that did not leave him enough time to react safely and there was nothing he could do to avoid the accident. This is where the sudden emergency or unavoidable accident doctrine comes into play. 

The sudden emergency doctrine is described by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Hickman v. Southern Pac. Transport Co., 262 La. 102, 112-113, 262 So.2d 385, 389 (La. 1972) as follows: 

One who suddenly finds himself in a position of imminent peril, without sufficient time to consider and weigh all the circumstances or best means that may be adopted to avoid an 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, unless the emergency in which he finds himself is brought about by his own negligence. 

The rationale for the doctrine is the principle that a person confronted with a sudden emergency, who does not have sufficient time to weigh and consider the best means to avoid an impending danger, should not be held to the same standard of control, care, and caution as someone who has ample opportunity to fully exercise judgment and reason. Whiddon v. Hutchinson, 94-2000, p. 6 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/23/96), 668 So.2d 1368, 1374, writs denied, 96-731, 96-775 (La. 5/10/96), 672 So.2d 923. It is the unanticipated hazard which forms the foundation for sudden emergency, like a dog darting into the road. Fontenot v. Boehm, 512 So.2d 1192, 1194 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1987); Whitehead v. Cruse, 279 So.2d 802 (La. App. 2d Cir.), writ denied, 281 So.2d 756 (La. 1973). 

The sudden emergency doctrine is applicable as long as the driver saw a potential accident about to occur and took appropriate action. Causey v. New Orleans Reg’l Transit Auth., 2018-0983 (La. App. 4 Cir. 03/20/19), 267 So.3d 187, 190; Coffey v. Mushatt, 2003-0232, p. 4 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/1/03), 859 So.2d 727, 731. Louisiana courts have found that the sudden emergency doctrine is no defense to a charge of negligence where the emergency was created by a motorist’s failure to maintain a proper lookout, speed, or following another vehicle too closely. Fontenot, 512 So.2d at 1194; 2 Blashfield, Automobile Law and Practice § 102.28 (Revised Third Edition 1979); Edwards v. Sims, 294 So.2d 611 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1974); Breaux v. Roy Young, Inc., 397 So.2d 1384 (La. App. 3d Cir. 1981); Dudley v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 255 So.2d 462 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1971). In other words, the doctrine cannot be invoked by one who has brought the emergency on himself by his own wrong or who has not used due care to avoid it. Fontenot, 512 So.2d at 1195. 

Similar to the sudden emergency doctrine, the doctrine of unavoidable or inevitable accident relieves a person of liability, so long as the person invoking the doctrine shows that he was in no way to blame for the happening. Davis v. Smith, 34,117 (La. App. 2d Cir. 10/2/01), 796 So.2d 765, writ denied, 2001-2887 (La. 1/25/02), 807 So.2d 250. If a motorist has exercised ordinary care as required by law (or the highest degree of care as may be required), and has nevertheless inflicted injury on another, the accident is said to be inevitable, for which no liability attaches. Id.