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California Jury Rejects Driver’s ‘Sudden Emergency’ Defense, Awards Parents $3.5M in Wrongful Death Case

When you’ve suffered harm as a result of someone else’s negligence, there are many important hurdles that you and your legal counsel must clear to obtain the compensation you deserve. You have to collect all of the factual evidence you need, navigate all of the required procedural steps, and then, at trial, put on your case and thwart all of the defenses the other side will offer. In a case from earlier this year, reported that a San Bernardino County jury imposed $3.5 million in damages against a negligent driver who crashed head-on into a mom’s SUV, injuring her and killing her 16-year-old daughter. The parents succeeded in part because they successfully countered the at-fault driver’s defense that she was not liable due to a “sudden emergency.”


The case involved a fatal car wreck in the Mojave Desert. E.M., a mother of four, was driving east one afternoon along Highway 62, between Joshua Tree National Park and the Arizona border, when her SUV was struck head-on by a westbound sedan, driven by M.B., that had crossed over into the eastbound lanes. The parents sued for the wrongful death of their daughter, as well as the mother’s own damages, contending that the wreck and the girl’s fatal injuries were the result of M.B.’s’ negligence.

The defense pinned much of its case on the nature of the conditions of the road in the area where the accident occurred. M.B.’s defense argued that her sedan struck a patch of gravel along the shoulder of the highway and that this gravel caused her to swerve her vehicle into the eastbound lanes of the road. Based upon this gravel and its effect on M.B.’s driving, the defense asked the judge in the trial to give the jury a “sudden emergency” defense instruction.

California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 452 instructs a jury that it may find the defendant not negligent if she acted with reasonable care in the face of an emergency situation. In order for a jury to find in favor of a defendant under the sudden emergency doctrine, CACI 452 says that the jury must find that there was a sudden and unexpected emergency in which someone was at actual or apparent risk of an imminent injury, the defendant did not cause that emergency, and the defendant “acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted in similar circumstances, even if it appears later that a different course of action would have been safer.”

A case from earlier this year offers some additional insight into how the sudden emergency instruction works. Generally, the sudden emergency doctrine is “reserved for those occasions where a conscious choice between two or more alternatives is made . . . [a]nd in light of later events, it turns out that one of the other choices would have been a better choice.” The key to defeating a sudden emergency defense is proving that there was no danger of immediate injury, that the defendant caused the emergency, or that the defendant’s course of action wasn’t reasonable.

In this case, the jury was not persuaded by M.B.’s defense. The parents’ counsel convinced the jury that M.B. was negligent and was liable for the daughter’s wrongful death. As a result, the jury awarded the parents more than $3 million on the wrongful death claim, including both past non-economic damages ($500,000) and future non-economic damages ($2.5 million). The remainder of the award compensated the mother for her past and future medical expenses, along with non-economic damages.

In cases in which you have been hurt, or perhaps even lost a loved one, due to another driver’s negligence, it is essential to get capable legal representation on your side. The experienced San Mateo car accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos have spent many years defending the rights of injured people to obtain a fair recovery. To set up a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys, contact us at 650-345-8484 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Affirms Two-Million Dollar Verdict for Plaintiff Injured in Auto Accident, San Mateo Injury Lawyers Blog, published May 10, 2016

Entire family killed in California car accident, San Mateo Injury Lawyers Blog, published May 30, 2014

Auto AccidentsandWrongful Death

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