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The Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine and How it Applies to Car Accidents

Car accidents happen daily. Determining fault in these situations is often challenging, but what is the protocol when a driver experiences a heart attack or seizure and causes an accident?  In instances where an unanticipated medical emergency leads to a vehicle collision, the sudden medical emergency doctrine holds that the driver could be relieved of liability.

If you were injured in a car accident and are unsure of what to do next, contact an experienced car accident attorney from Local Accident Reports. No matter where your accident took place, we have a lawyer who can help. Call us today to schedule your free consultation with one of our nationwide car accident attorneys.

What Is the Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine?

The basic idea behind the sudden emergency defense is that a person cannot be held liable for damages they caused due to a medical situation that was beyond their control.  

A sudden medical emergency defense is difficult to prove. A skilled car accident lawyer is needed to present and negotiate these kinds of cases. 

Claiming a Sudden Medical Emergency Defense

Regarding this defense, there are two caveats essential to understand. The first is that once a defendant raises the sudden medical emergency defenses, they shift the burden of proof onto themselves. This means they will have to prove that the accident was truly unavoidable on account of a medical emergency.  

The second is that the medical emergency must have been unforeseeable and unexpected. For instance, if a driver has been diagnosed with epilepsy and experienced a seizure while they were driving because they did not take their medication, the sudden medical emergency defense will not apply to their case because they were aware of their condition and chose to disregard the potential consequences of driving unmedicated.

If the medical crisis that disabled or immobilized the driver was predictable based on their medical history, the sudden medical emergency defense is inapplicable. 

Reasonable Conduct Under the Circumstances

One element that is crucial to the success of the sudden medical emergency defense is that the defendant must have acted in a reasonable manner. In other words, the actions they took must be the same as the actions an ordinarily prudent person would have taken under the same or similar circumstances.  

If an otherwise healthy defendant with no history of epilepsy or related conditions suddenly experienced a seizure behind the wheel, then the sudden medical emergency defense would most likely be applicable. If, however, the defendant had previously been diagnosed with epilepsy and been prescribed medication that prevented seizures from occurring or had been told not to drive at all, the sudden medical emergency defense would not apply to them, leaving them liable for any injuries and damages resulting from the accident. 

Sudden Medical Emergencies

Unexpectedly going unconsciousness is disturbing no matter what the circumstances. When it happens while you are driving, the situation becomes infinitely more dangerous. Any driver who endures the sudden and unanticipated onset of a condition that causes them to go unconscious may be able to employ the sudden medical emergency defense. Some health problems that could potentially lead to a sudden blackout include:

  • Stroke
  • Seizure
  • Heart attack 
  • Fainting
  • Delusions
  • Syncope
  • Undiagnosed diabetic condition 

Elements Involved in Determining Liability  

Any driver who experiences a medical emergency behind the wheel will need to unequivocally prove that they did not know about the preexisting condition that caused the medical emergency. As previously stated, a driver who claims the sudden medical emergency defense has the burden of proof to show they did not commit negligence. If a defendant wishes to cite a sudden medical emergency, there are three distinct elements they will have to prove. They are:   

Time Frame of the Incident

One element to proving sudden loss of consciousness is showing just how soon the accident took place following the medical emergency. Although the law does not specify an exact amount of time, the accident must have occurred immediately after the loss of consciousness.

If the driver had enough time to regain control of themselves and their vehicle, then it could be decided that the accident was avoidable. If the driver experienced warning signs or symptoms of a condition that would have given them time to pull over, the defense would again not be justified. If the driver was aware they had a medical condition with which they should not be driving, then they were simply negligent. There is no suddenness in a case where a medical condition is known or anticipated. 

If the accident took place right as the driver experienced an unexpected loss of consciousness, they have a significantly stronger defense.

Total Loss of Control

To use the sudden medical emergency defense, the driver must also prove a total loss of consciousness. This defense is employed under the pretense that the driver was not negligent. Total and sudden unconsciousness must be the primary reason the driver caused the crash. 

Unforeseeable Medical Emergency

The unpredictability and severity of your medical emergency will be taken into account. Use of the emergency doctrine must be backed by medical evidence that shows: 

  • Whether the driver required immediate emergency care
  • What diagnosis was given 
  • Whether the driver’s medical history indicated a foreseeable incident

A medical emergency must require immediate treatment. If the driver did not need emergency care, the defense is unlikely to hold up in court.  

A Nationwide Car Accident Attorney Can Help

To ensure you understand your rights and the best way to pursue maximum financial compensation, consult with an experienced nationwide car accident lawyer immediately following your car accident. During your free consultation, we can review your case and outline your legal options. Call us to schedule yours today. 

Our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by this accident.

If you or a loved one were injured in this incident, you should speak with an attorney as soon as possible. Having your case evaluated by a lawyer immediately will ensure your rights are protected. The first step is to request a police report, and we can do that for you. 

Contact us today at


to get the help you deserve. 

Local Accident Reports is here to provide you with valuable resources after you have been injured in an accident. In addition to your free police report, you can also schedule a free consultation with one of our personal injury attorneys right now to find out more about pursuing compensation. If you any have questions at all about your legal rights following an accident, please don't hesitate to call. 

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Note: These posts are created solely for the use of Local Accident Reports. We have not verified the information in these posts as the information is gathered from secondary sources. If you have personal knowledge that the information contained in these posts is inaccurate, please contact Local Accident Reports immediately so we can make the necessary corrections or remove the story.

Disclaimer: We are providing this information to the general public as a resource to use in the event you or a family member are injured in a similar incident. Every effort is put forth to honor the victims of accidents, and hope the information presented helps others avoid the same type of accidents in the future. The photos depicted in these posts are not representative of the actual accident scene. Please contact Local Accident Reports at (888) 657-1460 to be connected with an attorney in your area who will answer any legal questions you may have.

Harvey Barbee is our chief content writer who also has nearly 15 years of experience as a practicing attorney. Combining his skillset as a strong writer along with his in-depth knowledge of the legal system, Harvey uses his talents to write informative pieces for law firms about a variety of topics that affect individuals. He enjoys helping people find creative solutions to their legal problems. When he is not writing or practicing law, Harvey enjoys golf, gardening, and spending time with his family in North Carolina.

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