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When Drivers Have Medical Conditions, What Happens If They Crash?

By Renee Nordstrand on September 8, 2019

When a so-called medical emergency causes a crash, determining liability is not simple. Our Santa Barbara personal injury attorneys at NordstrandBlack PC have seen this argument used as a defense when one person collides into another and the victim files a lawsuit. It is not always the truth. Evidence will be the most important factor after a claim like this is made.

If you were involved in an accident in which the other driver claimed a medical condition made him or her do it, you should immediately talk to a lawyer. Call us at (805) 962-2022 so we can investigate.

How Does the Law Work in California?

In California, the Sudden Emergency Defense (or Medical Emergency Defense) requires three elements to be valid:

  • A sudden emergency situation arose in which someone was in danger (whether actual or apparent) of immediate injury,
  • The driver did not cause the emergency,
  • The driver acted “reasonably” in the situation; that is, how any other reasonable person would have responded to the situation, whether or not his choices seem logical in retrospect.

Therefore, a driver who has an unforeseen medical emergency that could not have been prevented by his own actions would not be held liable for the damages caused by a crash. It would likely be judged a “no fault” accident. However, if the driver was having symptoms beforehand but ignored them, he would be responsible. For example, if you ever feel lightheaded and dizzy and your vision blurs, you should pull over immediately to a safe part of the road. A driver who continues to operate a 4,000-lb vehicle with these warning signs and then passes out, wrecking his car and injuring someone else, would likely be judged liable to the victim.

California courts have decided that it is the defendant who must prove that he or she was actually affected by a medical emergency and that said emergency made him or her incapable of avoiding the accident. If the judge or jury doesn’t believe it, the plaintiff filing the lawsuit can walk away with compensation.

It’s good to note that in California, the Medical Emergency Defense cannot be applied to any sort of mental health issue. According to Civil Code Section 41: “A person of unsound mind, of whatever degree, is civilly liable for a wrong done by the person, but is not liable in exemplary damages unless at the time of the act the person was capable of knowing that the act was wrongful.” Exemplary damages are what other states call punitive damages, so-named because they punish a defendant for egregious wrongdoing.

Complications in Medical Emergency Cases

There is a good deal of gray area in fighting against the Sudden Emergency Defense. For example, a person who suffers a heart attack could claim he has no history of heart failure and therefore could not have known what would happen. On the other hand, a diabetic who has not eaten all day could be argued to have reasonably known such a course was dangerous and could result in a car accident. Many defendants, especially the elderly, will claim they fainted before a wreck, when they actually fainted due to the impact. Our law firm knows there are many seniors who should not be driving on the roadways in Santa Barbara County.

When you call (805) 962-2022, NordstrandBlack PC can go to work to uncover evidence in your case, such as the at-fault driver had previously been warned not to drive, or experienced similar episodes in the past. But perhaps the accident occurred for a different reason, such as the defendant recently had surgery or was put on powerful medication, and doctors did not warn him/her not to drive. There may be medical malpractice involved.

These crashes must be handled on a case-by-case basis, and your best bet is a local car accident attorney with a deep knowledge of medical conditions and a history of successful case results. Call our legal team today to schedule a free consultation.

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