A man was driving his vehicle in New York City at a speed of approximately 15 miles per hour when he saw a vehicle stopped approximately four car lengths in front of him. The man alleged that it was raining, and that his vehicle skidded when he attempted to stop his vehicle. The man’s vehicle was subsequently struck in the rear by an unidentified vehicle that fled the scene of the accident. That collision caused the man’s vehicle to cross over into the opposite lanes of traffic, directly into the path of a dairy truck which struck the man's vehicle. Another vehicle moving on the opposite lane then struck the dairy truck in the rear.
The injured man filed a suit against companies that owned the colliding vehicles to recover damages for personal injuries and injury to property. The first defendant, a diary company, moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, contending that the emergency doctrine applied to relieve them of liability for any injuries sustained by plaintiff in the accident. The owner of the vehicle that struck the diary truck cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, contending that the driver’s alleged negligence did not proximately cause the plaintiff's damages. The lower court denied all defendants’ motions, reasoning that the emergency doctrine did not apply in this case. Both defendants appealed.
On appeal, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision. The Second Department explained that, "under the emergency doctrine, when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, the actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context." The Court further added that an emergency does not automatically absolve one from liability for his or her conduct. The standard still remains that of a reasonable person under the given circumstances. The Court held that a driver is not obligated to anticipate that a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction will cross over into oncoming traffic, and such an event constitutes a classic emergency situation, thus implicating the emergency doctrine. The same rule applies in the First Department. It should be noted, however, that the emergency doctrine is inapplicable where a defendant driver is aware of the difficult weather conditions and should have accounted for them properly.
The Second Department held that the diary company established its entitlement to summary judgment by submitting evidence sufficient to demonstrate that its driver was faced with an emergency situation not of his own making, and that he acted reasonably in response to that emergency. In opposition, plaintiff failed to submit evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact.
The Second Department also held that the second defendant, the owner of the vehicle that struck the diary truck, established its entitlement to summary judgment by submitting evidence sufficient to demonstrate that its driver did not proximately cause the plaintiff's damages. The Court reasoned that evidence showed that the vehicle never came into contact with the plaintiff's vehicle, and that its contact with the dairy truck did not cause any further impact to plaintiff or his vehicle.
Accordingly, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision and the complaint against those defendants was dismissed.