Understanding the Sudden Emergency Defense


Understanding the Sudden Emergency Defense

Under limited emergency circumstances, drivers may not be liable for car accident injuries they cause.

Understanding the Sudden Emergency Defense When it comes to securing compensation for victims of personal injury accidents, an attorney needs to do more than just create a strong argument for the plaintiff’s position in the case. They must also be able to predict and undermine any arguments that the defense may raise.

This definitely includes the sudden emergency defense.

What is the Sudden Emergency Defense?

The sudden emergency defense is intended to relieve individuals of liability for accidents that arise out of true emergency situations. The reasoning is that, when faced with an emergency requiring immediate action, people may not have time to make the best possible choice, and they should not necessarily be punished for it.

According to the California Civil Jury Instructions, a sudden emergency defense may be considered if the defendant has proven that:

  • A sudden and unexpected emergency occurred which presented actual or apparent danger of immediate physical injury
  • The defendant did not cause the emergency
  • There were at least two courses of action available
  • Even if the defendant did not choose the safest option, their actions were still consistent with what a reasonably careful person would have done in the moment

A careful reading of these requirements reveals that things like glare or poor weather conditions are not emergencies, because they are foreseeable. The defense is more suited to incidents like a car swerving out of its lane to avoid a pedestrian, saving the pedestrian but causing a car accident.

Why is the Sudden Emergency Defense So Dangerous?

It is extremely important for a personal injury attorney to be able to fight back effectively against any attempted use of the sudden emergency defense, because if the defense is accepted, it will have a devastating impact on the case.


Because the sudden emergency defense is a complete defense.

If the court agrees that the defendant acted reasonably during an emergency, they are relieved of any share of the liability for the accident. This is true even if their reasonable action directly caused the accident. Ordinarily, under California’s comparative negligence laws, they would be liable for at least a portion of liability.

Most Notorious Use of the Sudden Emergency Defense

One of the most interesting, unusual, and ultimately notorious uses of the sudden emergency defense centers around a car accident that took place in 2008. A 19-year-old woman, Brittany Lahm, was driving three young male friends back from a beach trip in New Jersey. One of them untied her bikini top, and as she struggled to put the top back on her car veered off course, hit a guardrail, and landed upside down in the middle of traffic. The passenger who untied her top was killed and everyone else was seriously injured.

One of the injured victims brought a personal injury suit against Lahm, but Lahm’s attorneys successfully argued that the untied bikini top constituted an “emergency” of such magnitude that Lahm was not liable for the accident.

Under California’s stricter jury instructions, this case probably would have come to a different outcome. Because an untied bikini top did not present an immediate physical danger to anyone, the sudden emergency defense probably would not have been upheld. Lahm and the boy who untied her top would probably have both been found partially liable for the accident.

Need Help with a Car Accident Case?

This all just goes to show that it is absolutely critical to have a skilled attorney on your side when complicated legal principles like this come up. If you need help with a car accident case, call The Law Offices of Fernando D. Vargas at 909-982-0707 now for a free case evaluation.

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