Sudden Medical Emergency Defense in Trucking Cases
Many truckers who are involved in accidents claim that they suffered a medical emergency that caused them to black out, lose consciousness, or otherwise prevent them from operating their tractor trailer. This could occur for big rig drivers who have diabetes, a heart condition, epilepsy, or any other condition that could lead to a loss of consciousness.
What is the Sudden Emergency Doctrine?
In Virginia, a sudden emergency, or sudden medical emergency, “is an event or a combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action without giving time for the deliberate exercise of judgment.”[i] Oftentimes defendants in trucking cases try to rely on this defense to claim that they are not responsible for the accident that occurred. They will claim that this is a type of “Act of God” that cannot be prevented.
More specifically, the sudden emergency defense will excuse a defendant from any civil liability if that defendant driver, “without prior negligence on his part, is confronted with a sudden emergency and acts as an ordinarily prudent person what have done under the circumstances.”[ii] It is very important to note that this defense does not apply if the sudden emergency is foreseeable.[iii] That means that the defense doesn’t work if the truck driver had reason to know that he might black out while driving.
What Facts Can Defeat the Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine?
The facts may show that the defendant driver is not telling the truth and did not actually black out. This can be proven by eyewitness testimony from someone who observed the driver at the time of the accident or spoke to the truck driver right after the crash. Or, perhaps the cell phone or other electronically available records will indicate that the driver was conscious but distracted by texting, a telephone call, or even using the internet. It may also be the case that the truck driver did lose consciousness, but did so because he fell asleep due to hours of service violations.
The physical evidence at the scene and data from the tractor trailer’s ECM or “black box” may also refute the sudden medical emergency defense. Some trucks are outfitted with internal cameras that might provide footage of the truck driver immediately before the collision occurred. Perhaps the scene shows long brake marks, showing that the trucker was applying their brakes right before the crash and was therefore conscious. Or, the electronic data might show that the commercial truck driver was manipulating gauges or other instruments at the time of the crash.
If the physical evidence proves that the tractor trailer driver was having a medical emergency at the time of the crash, there are additional lines of attack available. First and foremost, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations have strict rules regarding driver qualifications, and both truckers and trucking companies must ensure that drivers satisfy driver fitness criteria.
Perhaps the most important driver qualification to prevent loss of consciousness accidents is found in the federal regulations at 49 C.F.R. § 391.41, which contains a number of physical requirements for truck drivers. As far as conditions that could implicate sudden medical emergency as concerned, that provision requires that drivers be medically certified before driving. It also requires that drivers not have a number of conditions that could lead to blackouts. Such conditions include:
- A medical history or established diagnosis of diabetes mellitus that requires taking insulin for control;
- An established diagnosis of myocardial infarction (heart attack), angina pectoris (chest pain, often from coronary artery disease), coronary insufficiency, thrombosis (blood clot), or any other cardiovascular disease that could cause syncope (fainting or passing out), dyspnea (difficult or labored breathing), collapse, or congestive heart failure
Truckers and trucking companies that cause accidents will go to great lengths to avoid responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. To hold them responsible, it is important that you hire an experienced Virginia truck accident lawyer. For more information about the sudden medical emergency in trucking cases, or for questions about a case, call Robert E. Byrne, Jr. at (434) 817-3100 or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation if you or a loved one has been injured due to a truck driver’s negligence. You will not owe anything u
[i] Hancock Underwood v. Knight, 277 Va. 127 (2009).
[ii] Pickett v. Cooper, 202 Va. 60 (1960).
[iii] Vahdat v. Holland, 274 Va. 417 (2007).