The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently affirmed the applicability of the sudden emergency doctrine in the context of a commercial motor vehicle accident, notwithstanding evidence of violations of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations by the commercial driver. The sudden emergency doctrine creates a less stringent negligence standard of care for an individual who, through no fault of his own, is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with imminent danger to himself or others. An individual confronted with an emergency is not liable for an injury resulting from his acting as reasonable man might act in such an emergency. In order to avail oneself of the sudden emergency doctrine (1) an emergency situation must exist requiring immediate action to avoid injury, and (2) the emergency must not have been created by the negligence of the party seeking the protection of the doctrine.
In Mary E. Fulmore, Administrator of the Estate of Priscilla Ann Maultsby v. Gregory Howell and PFS Distribution Company, Inc., ___ N.C. App. ___, 741 S.E.2d 494, (2013), the plaintiff brought suit against the driver of a commercial vehicle and the owner of the tractor trailer alleging various negligence theories. The commercial driver was operating his vehicle in a westerly direction on a two lane NC highway when he observed another vehicle approaching his tractor-trailer in the wrong lane. Fulmore, 741 S.E.2d at 496. In order to avoid a head-on collision, the commercial driver veered to the left. Id. Despite his efforts, the tractor-trailer collided with the approaching vehicle. Id. After the collision, the tractor-trailer ended up in the opposite (eastbound) lane where it then collided with another vehicle killing the driver, the plaintiff’s decedent. Id.
In response to the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence, the commercial driver asserted the sudden emergency doctrine and argued that the accident was not the result of any negligence on his part. The trial court granted the commercial driver’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of the sudden emergency doctrine. The Plaintiff appealed. Fulmore, 741 S.E.2d at 495.
On appeal, in an effort to establish negligence on the part of the commercial driver and negate the sudden emergency defense, plaintiff argued and presented evidence that the commercial driver was operating the tractor-trailer in violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s hours of service regulations. Fulmore, 741 S.E.2d at 496. The plaintiff further argued that the violation of the safety regulations constitutes negligence per se and that such negligence on the part of the commercial driver negates one of the necessary elements of the sudden emergency doctrine. Id. The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that in the absence of evidence of actual fatigue or that the hours of service violation was a cause of the accident, such a regulatory violation would not negate the sudden emergency doctrine. Fulmore, 741 S.E.2d at 497. In the alternative, plaintiff argued that the commercial driver should have reacted to the situation in a different way and veered to the right as opposed to the left. Id. The Court of Appeals summarily rejected this argument as well and stated that such an argument is the exact “sort of hindsight which the doctrine of sudden emergency precludes.” Id. The Court of Appeals noted that “plaintiff’s arguments are based upon expert analysis after the fact; [the commercial driver] had to react ‘instantaneously.’” Id. Similarly, the plaintiff argued that the commercial driver’s varying versions of how the accident happened created a question of material fact, thereby defeating the motion for summary judgment. Id. The Court of Appeals also dismissed this argument and stated that notwithstanding slight variations in the language used to describe the accident or minor details, the material facts of how the accident occurred were consistent and did not create a question of material fact. Id. The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims as to the commercial driver, as well as his employer, the motor carrier. Fulmore, 741 S.E.2d at 498.
The ruling in Fulmore is important to both commercial drivers and motor carriers in that it not only re-enforces the applicability of the sudden emergency doctrine as a viable defense, but it does so in light of evidence of a violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Requiring a party to present evidence of causation, as opposed to the mere breach of a safety regulation, places a more stringent burden on the party opposing the sudden emergency doctrine and what evidence is sufficient to defeat this defense.
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