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The emergency doctrine relieves a person of liability for negligence (such as causing a car accident) while the person is reacting to an emergency, if the actions taken were reasonable and prudent in the context of the emergency. In order for the doctrine to apply, there must be some sudden and unforeseen emergency not of the actor’s own making, and the actor’s response to the situation must be like that of a reasonably prudent person. As defined by the New York Court of Appeals in Rivera v. New York City Transit Authority, an emergency is “a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct.” A classic example of an emergency situation on the road would be when a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction suddenly crosses over into oncoming traffic. Application of the emergency doctrine has been rejected where parties had reason to anticipate the cause of the accident, such as glare at sunset while traveling west or weather conditions creating an icy roadway.
Recently, judges of the Appellate Division differed over the application of the emergency doctrine in the case of Pelletier v. Lahm. In this case, four teenagers were driving on the New York State Thruway after a day at the beach. A male passenger in the back seat was engaged in all sorts of antics that were distracting and annoying to the female driver, such as opening an umbrella in the car, leaning halfway out the vehicle, and sticking his feet in the driver’s face. Suddenly, the passenger reached forward and undid the string tying the driver’s bikini top. In reaction, she took her hands off the wheel to cover herself and the car veered outside the lane. The driver lost control of the vehicle while trying to get back into the lane, and the car struck and vaulted over a guardrail, overturned and came to rest upside down in the opposite lanes. The passenger who had been misbehaving died in the accident. Another of the passengers who was injured sued the driver for negligence.
At trial in the Supreme Court, Rockland County, the judge instructed the jury on the emergency doctrine, and the jury decided the doctrine applied and returned a verdict in favor of the defendant driver. The injured passenger plaintiff appealed, arguing that the judge should not have allowed the jury to consider the emergency doctrine. Three of the four appellate judges affirmed the trial court verdict, holding that the driver’s general awareness of the passenger’s distracting conduct did not mean she should have anticipated that he would suddenly pull the strings on her bikini top; the instruction to the jury was proper, and it was up to the jury to decide whether an emergency existed or not.
The fourth judge dissented, however. He felt that given the passenger’s overall behavior, the driver had time to appreciate the danger of the situation, reflect on it, and take action such as slowing down or stopping the car.