When does a sudden emergency excuse a driver’s negligence?

Sudden Emergency

Frazier v. Drake (Nev. Ct. App. – Sep. 3, 2015)

This matter arises from a personal injury action following a motor vehicle accident in which a vehicle was rear-ended by a semitrailer. Evidence was presented at trial indicating that bees flew into the cabin of the semitrailer, and one bee landed on the eye of the driver. The issue is whether the district court properly instructed the jury on sudden emergencies.

Drake was an employee of MS Concrete Company, Inc. On the day of the incident, Drake was driving an MS Concrete semitrailer truck on a major road in North Las Vegas. As he was driving, bees flew into the truck’s cabin, and one bee purportedly landed on his eye. While Drake attempted to remove the bee from his eye, he failed to observe a stoplight and rear-ended Frazier and Keys, whose vehicle was stopped at the light. Frazier and Keys (collectively referred to as Frazier, except where the context requires otherwise) suffered injuries in the accident and subsequently initiated the underlying personal injury action against Drake and MS Concrete (collectively referred to as Drake).

During the trial, Drake presented his defense that the bee landing on his eye constituted a sudden emergency rendering him unable to avoid the accident. Based on this defense, Drake sought to have the jury instructed that, if it found that the bee landing on his eye constituted a sudden emergency, he only had a duty of care equal to that of a reasonable person faced with the same situation. Over Frazier’s objections, the court instructed the jury on sudden emergencies, and the jury ultimately found in favor of Drake. Frazier then moved for a new trial, arguing that the sudden emergency instructions should not have been given and that the jury ignored the court’s instruction regarding Drake’s standard of care in reaching its verdict. Drake opposed this motion, which the district court ultimately denied. Frazier appealed.

Sudden emergency instructions

Frazier first challenged the district court’s decision to give the jury three sudden emergency instructions. In particular, she contended the sudden emergency doctrine should not have been applied because Drake created or contributed to the emergency by failing to apply his brakes when the bees flew in his cab window. In response, Drake argued the sudden emergency instructions were proper because the bees flying in his window, and particularly one bee landing on his eye, created a sudden emergency that prevented him from avoiding the collision.

The Nevada Court of Appeals noted that in Posas v. Horton, 126 Nev. 112, 228 P.3d 457 (2010), the Nevada Supreme Court discussed the circumstances under which the sudden emergency doctrine may be applied. In addressing this issue, the Posas court recognized that a sudden emergency occurs when an unexpected condition confronts a party exercising reasonable care. Thus, when a party’s negligence is what caused the emergency, that party’s exercise of reasonable care after the emergency arose will not preclude his liability for the negligent conduct that created the emergency.

The Court explained that for a sudden emergency instruction to be warranted, sufficient evidence must be presented demonstrating that a party was suddenly placed in a position of peril through no fault of his own and that he responded to that emergency as a reasonably prudent person would. Additionally, the emergency must have directly affected the party seeking the instruction, rather than another party involved in the incident, even if the emergency resulted in indirect consequences for the party seeking the instruction. Finally, when a sudden emergency instruction is sought in the context of a motor vehicle accident case, evidence must be presented demonstrating that the asserted emergency involved something more than the typical hazards drivers should expect to encounter in the regular course of operating a vehicle, such as the sudden appearance of obstacles or people, crowded intersections, or sudden stops.

In challenging both the judgment on the jury verdict and the denial of her new trial motion, Frazier asserted the sudden emergency doctrine did not apply in this case because Drake caused the emergency situation by failing to apply the brakes while removing the bee from his eye. Frazier’s argument suggested the failure to brake and the resulting collision constituted the sudden emergency. The Court explained that the emergency asserted by Drake, and recognized by the district court in its jury instructions, however, was not Drake’s failure to apply the brakes, but instead, was the entrance of the bees into the truck cabin and, particularly, the proximity of one of those bees to Drake’s eye.

To that end, during trial, Drake presented evidence indicating that bees flew into the cabin of his truck shortly before the accident occurred and that one of the bees landed on his eye. He further presented expert testimony indicating that, when people are confronted with an emergency, their brain focuses all of its attention on dealing with the emergency until it is resolved, such that Drake’s brain would respond to a bee landing on his eye as an emergency and would lock into dealing just with that trauma. The expert concluded that, under these circumstances, Drake was unable to focus on stopping or avoiding a collision with Frazier’s car until the bee was no longer in his eye.

Moreover, Frazier did not contend that Drake did anything to cause the appearance of the bees in the cabin or that he otherwise acted negligently prior to their entry into the cabin. The Court explained that to the extent Frazier’s arguments can be read as suggesting that bees flying into a vehicle, with one bee landing on the driver’s eye, constitute the sort of typical driving hazard that would preclude application of the sudden emergency doctrine, relevant authority supported the conclusion that these circumstances would constitute more than an ordinary driving hazard.

Based on the foregoing, the Court concluded Drake presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury to determine that, through no fault of his own, Drake was directly placed in a position of peril beyond the ordinary hazards of driving and responded to that situation as a reasonably prudent person would. Under these circumstances, the Court did not disturb the jury verdict based on the district court’s decision to instruct the jury regarding the law on sudden emergencies. For the same reasons, the Court determined the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to grant a new trial on these grounds.

Disregard of jury instructions

Frazier next argued the district court abused its discretion by not granting a new trial based on the jury’s alleged disregard of the court’s instructions regarding the applicable standard of care.

Regarding Drake’s duty of care, the jury was instructed that a driver has a duty to decrease his speed as necessary to avoid colliding with another vehicle and that, if the jury found Drake violated this duty, it should then consider the issue of whether that was negligence and was a proximate and legal cause of injury or damage to the plaintiff. The sudden emergency instructions, however, allowed the jury to find Drake was not negligent if it concluded that he was confronted with a sudden emergency not caused by his own negligence and that he acted as any reasonably prudent person would when faced with a similar emergency.

Taking the sudden emergency instructions into account, Frazier contended a reasonably prudent person would have applied the brakes under the circumstances faced by Drake. In this regard, Frazier pointed to testimony by three witnesses asserting that they experienced having bees in their cars and that they either rolled down the window, allowing the bees to escape, or applied their brakes and pulled the car over until the bees flew out of the car. The Court noted that as Drake pointed out, none of these witnesses testified that a bee had landed on their face or on their eye. Moreover, Drake presented expert testimony indicating that, when the bee landed on his eye, his brain would have focused all of its attention on dealing with the bee, such that he could not focus on stopping or avoiding a collision with Frazier’s car until the bee was no longer in his eye.

The Court explained that based on this evidence, the jury could have found that, when faced with the sudden emergency of a bee in his eye, Drake acted as a reasonably prudent person would act under the same circumstances. Thus, the Court believed it could not be said that the jurors did not follow the district court’s instructions when they found for Drake. Accordingly, because Frazier cannot demonstrate that, as a matter of law, the jury could not have reached a verdict in Drake’s favor without manifestly disregarding its instructions, the Court found that the district court properly denied Frazier’s request for a new trial on this basis.

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