Just because someone causes an accident doesn’t necessarily mean they are legally responsible for it.
Under the “sudden medical emergency” (SME) defense a driver “who becomes suddenly stricken by an unforeseen loss of consciousness, and is unable to control the vehicle, is not chargeable with negligence.”
Saturday’s 28 car accident on I-5 brings the SME defenses into sharp focus. King 5 reports:
Washington State Patrol says the driver of a semi-truck may have had a medical emergency before he crossed the median and plowed into oncoming traffic Saturday, causing a massive crash involving dozens of cars in Mount Vernon.
Washington State Patrol says 28 vehicles were involved and seven people were injured. One person remained in critical condition Sunday.
The accident happened around 8:45 a.m. Saturday in the northbound lanes near Anderson Road.
Trooper Mark Francis said a loaded semi-truck driving southbound crossed the median and drove into cars that were stopped on the other side due to an investigation of a shooting earlier that morning.
At first glance the truck driver seems to be clearly at fault—he crossed into oncoming traffic and started the 28 car pile up that followed.
But the truck driver is likely going to raise the SME defense.
There are a number of ways to defeat the defense:
First, the medical emergency must have been sudden and unexpected. If the truck driver had previous knowledge of his medical condition then he can’t hide behind SME. Either he knew or should have known he was at risk when he got behind the wheel.
Second, the medical emergency must have caused the truck driver to lose control. If the driver swerved or otherwise lost control of his vehicle before or independent from the medical emergency or independent then he can’t use the SME defense.
For example, we represented a man who was rear-ended by a driver that unsuccessfully attempted to avoid liability under the SME defense. The at-fault driver claimed the accident was the result of an unexpected and sudden medical emergency—a seizure while driving.
We successfully overcame the defense on two independent grounds: (1) by showing that the at-fault driver lost control of his vehicle before losing consciousness and (2) by showing that because the at-fault driver did not take his seizure medication he knew or should have known that he was at risk for seizures while driving.
After breaking down the SME defense we were able to recover more than three times our client’s medical expenses at mediation.
It is important that the injured drivers in Saturday’s accident look beyond SME at what really caused the truck driver to cross into oncoming traffic and whether the driver had prior knowledge of his medical condition.