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What is the Sudden Medical Emergency defense in Virginia car accident lawsuits?

Blaszkow Legal, PLLC Sept. 27, 2023

When driving on the roadway, accidents do happen. However, the word "accident" implies that no one is at fault. In most cases, however, motor vehicle collisions are not true accidents - they happen because someone, or multiple people, was/were negligent. Negligence comes in all forms, from simple errors and omissions, to outright recklessness and carelessness. To each of these incidents, an insurance company will attempt to raise defenses, or excuse for why the negligence happened, if they admit there was any negligence at all. One of the less common defenses is the claim of a sudden medical emergency.

What is a Sudden Medical Emergency?

A sudden medical emergency a medical incident is unforeseen, and unforeseeable, and is a proximate cause of the collision at issue.

Let's break that down. Unforeseeable is the most important part. A person cannot have prior warning or prior reasonable belief that the medical incident can, or will happen.

Some of the more common examples of sudden medical emergencies:

  • Heart attack

  • Seizure

  • Stroke

  • Syncope (losing consciousness, or passing out/fainting)

What is the Sudden Medical Emergency defense?

Claiming a sudden medical emergency is a defense raised by an insurance company or a defense lawyer, saying that the tortfeasor, or person who caused the collision, suffered a unforeseen and unforeseeable medical incident that caused the tortfeasor to lose control of his vehicle, and to collide with another vehicle. (There are other "sudden emergency" defenses, such as a deer running out into the highway, but we are going to focus on medical defenses in this article.)

The defense of sudden medical emergency is not commonly raised in Virginia, though it does happen. When it happens, the defendant is asking the court to concede that there was a collision, but to say that the defendant is not at fault, and not responsible for the accident. In order to Prevail on the sudden medical emergency defense, the defendant has to prove that the medical incident was unexpected, and unforeseeable. Under normal circumstances, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove his case. However, with this defense, the burden shifts the defendant to prove those points: that he had no advanced knowledge or warning of the illness or condition.

The Virginia definition of "reasonable conduct?"

In bringing a defense of sudden medical emergency, the defendant must prove that he acted reasonably under the circumstances. Reasonable is, of course, a sliding scale, but is generally interpreted to mean how would a normally prudent person have acted under the same set of circumstances. Courts have held that a reasonable person is ordinarily prudent, and careful. So the defendant has to prove that he took reasonable steps to prevent the In the realm of sudden medical emergency, he has to have taken whatever steps were necessary to stop the condition from happening, if applicable.

Example. Mr. Thomas is driving from Alexandria to Fairfax, and has a heart attack.
He loses control, and strikes a DASH bus. Is Mr. Thomas liable for the collision?

The question here comes to reasonable foreseeability. If the defendant - Mr. Thomas - did not have any chest pains, has no history of cardiac conditions, and no reason to believe that he was going to have a heart attack that day or was even at risk for it, he may be able to prevail on that defense.

However, if Mr. Thomas did have a history of cardiac conditions, had a history of chest pains, had been prescribed medication for his heart, and then not had not had that prescription filled, and was not taking the medication, then the defense may fail. The court may find that a reasonable person would have taken the medication, to prevent the heart attack. Because, in this scenario, Mr. Thomas did not take the reasonable steps, the heart attack was a foreseeable consequence of those choices (not taking the medication), and those choices can be determined to be negligent.

When will the defense claim sudden Medical emergency?

Often times, insurance companies will claim the sudden medical emergency defense as soon as they are able. Because, if they can meet their burden, it is such a strong defense, they will throw that gauntlet down as early as possible. Generally this will be in the pre litigation stage, when your car accident lawyer is discussing the case with the at-fault insurance company.

The sudden medical emergency defense must be proven. An experienced car accident lawyer is going to demand the proof from the at-fault insurance company, and the insurance companies will often refuse to provide the evidence, since the evidence would be the tortfeasor's medical records. This refusal often requires lawyers to file lawsuits to force the production of that information (via subpoena or discovery). As car accident lawyers, we are ethically responsible for zealously representing our clients, and doing everything we can to advance their interests. We cannot just take the insurance company's word for it, because otherwise they would claim it in every case!

Sudden Medical Emergencies and Virginia Law

The Virginia Model Civil Jury Instructions actually have language relating to sudden medical emergencies:

Instruction 7.005: “A medical emergency occurs when the [defendant] is
suddenly stricken by an illness that he had no reason to anticipate and
which renders it impossible for him to control his [automobile]. If you
believe from the evidence that the [defendant] was confronted by a
medical emergency, then he was not negligent.

The most recent Virginia Supreme Court case to deal with Sudden Medical Emergencies was in Hancock-Underwood v. Knight, 277 Va. 127 (2009). In this case, the defendant was arguing both sudden emergency and sudden medical emergency. These are two different and distinct defenses. In the Hancock case, the defendant was unconscious at the time of the collision, and the Court ruled that he was stricken by a "medical emergency," thus holding that the standard "sudden emergency" defense, as plead in that case, did not apply. Instead, it was a sudden medical emergency.

It is important to remember that, in any personal injury case in Virginia, it must be proved that the defendant was negligent.

Contact a Car Accident Attorney after a Collision

Insurance companies will raise whatever defense they think is in their own best interests, and these defenses - or denials - can confuse and confound unrepresented people. Insurance companies are betting on the numbers: most people who have been involved in car accidents won't speak to a car accident lawyer.

Never let an insurance company take advantage of you. Always speak to an experienced car accident lawyer who will help analyze the insurance company's claims, and work hard to get you the compensation that you deserve.

If you have been hurt in a car accident, truck accident, bus accident, or other collision that was not your fault, call the professionals at Blaszkow Legal for a free consultation today! Get Justice with Joe Blaszkow!

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7824 Shrader Road, Richmond, Va. 23294

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