Tennessee Court Denies Sudden Emergency Defense in Car Accident Case

Generally, when an individual acts negligently, he or she can be held liable for any injuries that result from such negligence. In certain instances, however, affirmative defenses may be available that insulate the defendant from liability. For instance, if an individual is acting at the instruction of another party or while under duress, a court may decide that although negligent conduct occurred, the defendant should not be held liable for it. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looks at whether a police officer could successfully claim that he was acting in response to a sudden emergency in order to avoid liability for an accident he caused.

In Turner v. City of Memphis, Mr. Turner was driving his vehicle south on Third Street in Memphis when he was suddenly struck by a police car driven by Officer Brown. Mr. Turner was in his correct lane at the time, but Officer Brown had swerved suddenly into oncoming traffic, resulting in the accident. At the time, Mr. Turner had not been drinking and was not speeding. Officer Brown testified that he also was not speeding at the time, but as he drove north on Third Street, he noticed a moving object out of the corner of his eye and believed it to be a person. He swerved across two lanes of traffic in order to avoid the person. As he passed, he looked in his rear view mirror and saw a dog, which he believed he had mistaken for a person. At the same time, his car collided with Mr. Turner. Mr. Turner suffered serious injuries and sued for negligence.

Both parties testified at trial. The officer who investigated the traffic scene also testified and noted that he had not seen a dog anywhere near the accident site. At the end of the testimony, the trial court concluded that it was undisputed that Officer Brown had crossed two lanes of traffic suddenly and without notice, and he had caused Mr. Turner’s accident. It further held that Mr. Turner had not acted negligently and was not liable for his own injuries. The trial court awarded Mr. Turner damages for the accident that occurred.

On appeal, Officer Brown argued that the trial court should have concluded that he was not negligent and not liable for the accident because, under the sudden emergency doctrine, when a person is confronted with a sudden emergency, he or she is not expected to act with the same judgment or care as one would normally.  The appellate court noted that the burden of proving the sudden emergency doctrine falls on the individual seeking to benefit from it. Furthermore, a determination of whether it applies may only be overturned on appeal by clear and convincing evidence. Here, the appellate court noted that the witnesses at the trial provided conflicting evidence regarding whether there was a sudden emergency. While Officer Brown claimed to have seen a dog or person that he needed to avoid, no one else at the scene noticed such an individual. Moreover, the trial court concluded that even if such an obstacle had existed, Officer Brown should not have needed to cross two lanes of traffic and into oncoming traffic to avoid it. The appeals court found that there was not sufficient clear and convincing evidence to overturn these conclusions. Accordingly, it affirmed the finding that Officer Brown was liable for the accident that occurred.

In emergency situations, individuals may act suddenly and without warning, and in a more careless manner than they might otherwise. Negligence can occur, and individuals can be hurt. While personal injury defendants may be able to avoid liability by showing that they responded as best they could in an emergency, the burden is on them to prove this defense. Experienced Tennessee car accident attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether defenses such as a sudden emergency may arise in your case and how to effectively combat them. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Sixth Circuit Overturns Harsh Pleading Standard in Auto Accident Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 6, 2016.

The Necessity of Proving Causation in Tennessee Auto Accident Claims -Denton v. Taylor, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, August 18, 2016

What Constitutes a Known Dangerous Condition in Tennessee, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 7, 2016.