Snow, Ice, And The Sudden Emergency Doctrine

With wintertime driving comes the increased likelihood of motor vehicle accidents causing personal injuries or wrongful death.  Falling snow, morning fog during a brief warming period, snow, ice, and chemicals on roads, tall snow banks, frosted windows, and snow or slush spray from the road can all decrease or eliminate visibility, make  stopping and handling difficult, and sometimes simultaneously cause all those problems.  Drivers certainly need to exercise more caution during winter driving and are generally expected to do so, or face negligence liability for an accident.  But sometimes all the care in the world won’t prevent a wintertime accident.  In extreme circumstances, drivers may try to use the “sudden emergency doctrine” to avoid negligence liability.

The sudden emergency doctrine excuses a defendant’s negligence when confronted with an emergency not of the defendant’s own making.  Sudden emergency has been defined as “(1) an unforeseen combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action; (2) a perplexing contingency or complication of circumstances; (3) a sudden or unexpected occasion for action, exigency, pressing necessity.  A sudden emergency requires an “instantaneous response,” or “something fairly close.”

Iowa courts will usually tell juries that a sudden emergency is an unforeseen combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action or a sudden or unexpected occasion for action.  A driver of a vehicle who, through no fault of the driver’s own, is placed in a sudden emergency, is not chargeable with negligence if the driver exercises that degree of care which a reasonably careful person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances.

The sudden emergency doctrine has been applied to motor vehicle accident cases.  Drivers use the sudden emergency defense to argue that they were not negligent because they encountered something unexpected on the road and did the best they could.  Examples include cases involving hazardous road conditions and ice.

A word of caution for those of you expecting to barrel around on the roads this winter and then scream “sudden emergency!” when the other driver you obliterate sues you.  Although the Iowa Supreme Court has retained the sudden emergency doctrine as an aspect of Iowa’s neglience law, it has expressed dissatisfaction with the doctrine and indicated various reasons why the doctrine should be eliminated from Iowa law.  So the next person who tries to use the sudden emergency defense may find that it no longer exists in Iowa.

Regardless, the sudden emergency doctrine is rarely determined to be applicable to a motor vehicle negligence case.  On the few occasions when the sudden emergency defense has been before Iowa’s appellate courts over the past twenty years, the courts have ruled in every case that the defendant was not entitled to argue the sudden emergency defense because there was no “sudden emergency.”  The Iowa Supreme Court has warned that it’ll narrowly apply the sudden emergency defense to avoid turning every road condition into a “sudden emergency.”


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