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Flipped Car Accident

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One of the main defenses raised in motor vehicle accidents in New York is that the driver at fault was responding to an emergency at the time of the accident.  This defense is extremely powerful, but it has its limits.  The limit of the emergency jury charge was examined in a recent Second Department case.

This recent case stems from a one-vehicle accident when a woman was operating a vehicle with four passengers veered out of the lane of traffic and struck a guardrail, flipped multiple times and crossed over into the opposite lanes of traffic.  As a result of the accident one of the passengers was killed and another suffered severe injuries.  The passenger that suffered severe injuries initiated suit against the driver and the owner of the vehicle.

The group was headed home from a day at the Jersey Shore and the defendant driver was headed north on the New York State Thruway to drop off one of the passengers. At some point, while traveling northbound on the New York State Thruway just south of the Suffern exit, decedent pulled the bikini strings of defendant driver’s bathing suit, causing her to take her hands off the wheel to cover herself, and thereby losing control of the vehicle.

Plaintiff, who suffered severe injuries in the accident, alleged that defendant driver’s negligence caused the accident because of her reaction to decedent’s conduct. It is not disputed that the person that pulled her bikini strings causing her top to fall down was the decedent. However, plaintiff argued and continues to argue that the driver’s negligent conduct in taking her hands off the wheel and losing control of her vehicle caused the accident. Specifically, plaintiff argued that the defendant driver should have slowed her vehicle down, kept both hands on the wheel, and pulled off of the highway, before attempting to re-tie her bathing suit, and the mere fact that she may have been embarrassed by the exposure of her breasts to the passengers in the car does not excuse her failure to do so.

The matter proceeded to trial which concluded in a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendants.  Prior to jury deliberations, the jury was given an instruction that if they believed that the driver 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 the alternative courses of conduct, the driver may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context.

The plaintiff had vigorously objected to the use of the use of the emergency doctrine jury charge, and appealed.  The Second Department held that the emergency jury instruction is not proper where the situation is neither sudden nor unexpected or could have been reasonably anticipated in light of the surrounding circumstances.

In the present case, the evidence at trial established that, prior to the accident, the decedent engaged in a course of distracting conduct, including spitting chewing tobacco out the window, opening an umbrella inside the vehicle, leaning halfway out of the window, and using the umbrella to clean the tobacco off the exterior of the vehicle. The decedent, who had been laughing about his actions, then proceeded, from the backseat, to stick his feet over the center console into the driver’s face. Despite the decedent’s conduct, the driver never attempted to pull the vehicle over, or to slow the vehicle down and, instead, continued to travel on the Thruway at a speed of 65 miles per hour.

The Second Department held the situation was neither sudden nor unexpected, and, in fact, could have been reasonably anticipated in light of the surrounding circumstances. The driver was aware of the decedent’s inappropriate, distracting, and dangerous behavior, yet chose to maintain her speed at 65 miles per hour rather than take appropriate measures to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle. Thus, this does not present a situation envisioned by the emergency doctrine.  Moreover, it cannot be said that the driver did not have time for “thought, deliberation or consideration,” in fact; the driver had a full opportunity to reflect on the ongoing situation, which occurred over a span of approximately 15-20 minutes.

Accordingly, the lower court erred in giving the jury the “emergency” instruction, and the case was remanded for a new trial.

One of the main defenses raised in motor vehicle accidents in New York is that the driver at fault was responding to an emergency at the time of the accident.  This defense is extremely powerful, but it has its limits.  The limit of the emergency jury charge was examined in a recent Second Department case.

This recent case stems from a one-vehicle accident when a woman was operating a vehicle with four passengers veered out of the lane of traffic and struck a guardrail, flipped multiple times and crossed over into the opposite lanes of traffic.  As a result of the accident one of the passengers was killed and another suffered severe injuries.  The passenger that suffered severe injuries initiated suit against the driver and the owner of the vehicle.

The group was headed home from a day at the Jersey Shore and the defendant driver was headed north on the New York State Thruway to drop off one of the passengers. At some point, while traveling northbound on the New York State Thruway just south of the Suffern exit, decedent pulled the bikini strings of defendant driver’s bathing suit, causing her to take her hands off the wheel to cover herself, and thereby losing control of the vehicle.

Plaintiff, who suffered severe injuries in the accident, alleged that defendant driver’s negligence caused the accident because of her reaction to decedent’s conduct. It is not disputed that the person that pulled her bikini strings causing her top to fall down was the decedent. However, plaintiff argued and continues to argue that the driver’s negligent conduct in taking her hands off the wheel and losing control of her vehicle caused the accident. Specifically, plaintiff argued that the defendant driver should have slowed her vehicle down, kept both hands on the wheel, and pulled off of the highway, before attempting to re-tie her bathing suit, and the mere fact that she may have been embarrassed by the exposure of her breasts to the passengers in the car does not excuse her failure to do so.

The matter proceeded to trial which concluded in a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendants.  Prior to jury deliberations, the jury was given an instruction that if they believed that the driver 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 the alternative courses of conduct, the driver may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context.

The plaintiff had vigorously objected to the use of the use of the emergency doctrine jury charge, and appealed.  The Second Department held that the emergency jury instruction is not proper where the situation is neither sudden nor unexpected or could have been reasonably anticipated in light of the surrounding circumstances.

In the present case, the evidence at trial established that, prior to the accident, the decedent engaged in a course of distracting conduct, including spitting chewing tobacco out the window, opening an umbrella inside the vehicle, leaning halfway out of the window, and using the umbrella to clean the tobacco off the exterior of the vehicle. The decedent, who had been laughing about his actions, then proceeded, from the backseat, to stick his feet over the center console into the driver’s face. Despite the decedent’s conduct, the driver never attempted to pull the vehicle over, or to slow the vehicle down and, instead, continued to travel on the Thruway at a speed of 65 miles per hour.

The Second Department held the situation was neither sudden nor unexpected, and, in fact, could have been reasonably anticipated in light of the surrounding circumstances. The driver was aware of the decedent’s inappropriate, distracting, and dangerous behavior, yet chose to maintain her speed at 65 miles per hour rather than take appropriate measures to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle. Thus, this does not present a situation envisioned by the emergency doctrine.  Moreover, it cannot be said that the driver did not have time for “thought, deliberation or consideration,” in fact; the driver had a full opportunity to reflect on the ongoing situation, which occurred over a span of approximately 15-20 minutes

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