Jury must decide if speeding to hospital was sudden emergency

 By Traci R. Gentilozzi

Dolan Media Newswires
 
 A jury must determine whether the “sudden emergency doctrine” nixes a lawsuit against a driver who was involved in an accident while transporting a gunshot victim to the hospital, the Michigan Court of Appeals has decided.
The defendant driver was traveling between 90 and 160 miles per hour to get the victim to the hospital when the car hit a pothole and rolled numerous times. The plaintiff, a backseat passenger, was injured and sued the defendant in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Judge Daphne Means Curtis ruled the sudden emergency doctrine barred the plaintiff’s claims. That doctrine excuses a person’s negligent conduct because of an unexpected emergency that requires an immediate response and makes it impossible to take other reasonable action to avoid the danger.
“[I]f there’s any case, the poster child, if you will, for sudden emergency, it’s this case," Means Curtis said.
But the Court of Appeals disagreed in a 2-1 decision, finding the sudden emergency issue should have gone to the jury.
“We acknowledge that a rational jury could determine that defendant acted reasonably and prudently under the specific circumstances of the emergency,” the majority said.
“On the other hand, a rational jury could determine that despite being faced with a sudden emergency, defendant acted unreasonably by exceeding the speed limit to such a great extent, especially at nighttime with limited sight distances.”
The unpublished case is Salem v. Saleh (MiLW No. 08-86660, 4 pages). Judges Kathleen Jansen and Peter D. O’Connell joined the majority opinion.
Judge Donald S. Owens dissented, saying the case was properly dismissed because the evidence “supported a finding that defendant acted reasonably when confronted with a sudden emergency.”
Not an invite to behave negligently
The plaintiff argued the sudden emergency doctrine did not apply because the defendant took time after the shooting to stop the car and assess the condition of the victim and because the shooter no longer posed any danger.
According to the majority, whether a defendant acted reasonably when faced with a sudden emergency is usually a question of fact for the jury.
Here, the victim was shot after street racing in Detroit, the majority pointed out. The plaintiff and the defendant both testified the defendant got out of the car momentarily to confirm the victim had actually been shot. The defendant then got back into the car and upon seeing there was blood everywhere, the defendant and the passengers realized it was an emergency.
“We conclude that the unforeseeable and unexpected shooting of the [victim], the severity of the [victim’s] condition, and the need to transport him to the hospital immediately, all culminated to create a sudden emergency,” the majority wrote.
However, there was also an issue concerning the applicability of the sudden emergency doctrine, the majority said.
The plaintiff testified that, during the drive to the hospital, he was holding the victim and putting pressure on the gunshot wound. The plaintiff said he did not tell the defendant to slow down because the purpose was to get the victim to the hospital. And another passenger testified the defendant “had no choice” but to exceed the speed limit.
“While the situation was undoubtedly serious, it is well-settled that the sudden emergency doctrine does not create an invitation to behave in an unreasonably negligent manner,” the Court of Appeals majority said, noting a defendant must still act as a reasonably prudent person would act under the circumstances of the particular emergency.
In this case, the evidence showed the defendant was driving between 90 and 160 miles per hour on Detroit city streets at night and that, when the defendant hit the pothole, he lost control and the vehicle rolled numerous times.
“This was clearly negligent behavior, and it was for the trier of fact to determine whether defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances of the particular emergency at issue,” the majority wrote, remanding the case for further proceedings.