What if a Medical Emergency Caused My Accident? Am I Still Responsible?

Car Accident

Legal Representation for MA & RI Drivers with Medical Conditions

Persons with permanent disabilities and medical disorders often face barriers in our society. If you are confined to a wheelchair, the issue can be staring you in the face: how are you going to get up those steps? Persons with other chronic conditions – for example, diabetes, hypoglycemia, epilepsy, or heart disease – face a different sort of challenge. On most days, they are able to function in much the same way as anyone else. Yet under some conditions, they are subject to blackouts and fainting. If you are diabetic or suffer from epilepsy, does that mean you can never drive a car? If you are driving when one of these medical emergencies occurs, are you liable for damages in much the same way as if you ran a stop sign? As with many other legal issues, the answer is based on the facts of the particular accident.

Basic Rule: The Issue is One of Negligence

You may say, “How could I have been negligent? I blacked out.” The general rule is that, just as in any other case, you can be held legally responsible for an auto accident only when it is determined that you acted in a negligent manner.  Negligence is a question of reasonableness. If it is determined that you were not negligent at the time of your accident, then you may not be liable.

Sudden Emergency Defense

Under the law of most states, you cannot be found to have been negligent if you can establish a sudden emergency defense.  In Rhode Island, the “sudden emergency doctrine” states that “individuals confronted with sudden and unexpected events demanding immediate action cannot be held to the same standard of care required of one in no such predicament.”

In sudden emergency cases, the jury will evaluate a driver’s conduct, just as in any other negligence case, based on a question of whether the driver was acting reasonably, but when a sudden emergency is involved, the emergency itself is an additional factor used to evaluate the driver’s reasonableness.

A close look at the facts of your car accident is key in determining whether the defense will apply.  Specifically, the defense is not available if:

1) the sudden emergency was foreseeable, or

2) the event was not spontaneous (or sudden), or

3) the person responding was negligent in acting.

Medical Emergency Must Be Unforeseeable

If a physician had indicated to you that you face a significant risk of fainting, and you continued to drive, it would be difficult to argue that your loss of consciousness was unforeseeable.

The argument follows that if you are subject to fainting or other loss of consciousness, you were not only negligent in the operation of your vehicle, but you were negligent for getting behind the wheel in the first place.

If you have a heart condition, it might be easier to establish the sudden emergency defense, since the onset of heart attacks and/or strokes are often sudden and generally unforeseen.

Medical Emergency Must Be Sudden

Similarly, if you felt lightheaded or dizzy and continued driving down the road for several minutes before you blacked out, it would be difficult to establish that your loss of consciousness was sudden.

Driver’s Actions Must Not Be Negligent

Just because a  sudden emergency occurs does not mean that a driver who was otherwise acting negligently can avoid responsibility for the accident.  In other words, a sudden emergency does not give the driver a “free pass” on negligence.

Driver Restrictions Regarding Conditions like Epilepsy

Because of the risk some persons with epilepsy face in driving, many states limit driving privileges among people with the condition.

The Rhode Island DMV has no official law or policy statements restricting driving after a seizure, other than to allow the DMV Administrator to consult with a Medical Advisory Board when a driver’s medical or physical fitness to operate a motor vehicle is called into question.  However, most RI doctors will restrict patients for 6 months following a seizure that involves a loss of consciousness or loss of motor control necessary for driving.

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, by contrast, has an official policy statement that requires current drivers, or applicants for a learner’s permit, to be seizure-free for 6 months following a “seizure, syncope, or any other episode of altered consciousness which will or may affect the safe operation of a motor vehicle”.  This means that current licensees who have a seizure must voluntarily surrender their license for at least 6 months.

Drivers’ Medical Records Are Important

During the discovery and litigation phases of any civil action involving a sudden emergency defense, the contents of the person’s medical records may be an important determinant. If the physician has periodically noted that the driver is subject to fainting and loss of consciousness, it will be difficult to establish the defense.  At Bottaro Law, we have the knowledge and experience required to maneuver through technical medical records and data.

Discuss Your Auto Accident with the Experienced Team at Bottaro Law

Have you been involved in an auto accident? At Bottaro Law, we are a top-rated team of experienced personal injury attorneys who represent victims in auto accidents throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts. To discuss the specifics of your case with one of our attorneys at no cost, call (401) 777–7777 or complete this short information form found on our web site.