Does Oregon Recognize the “Sudden Emergency” Doctrine in Automobile Negligence Cases?

Automobile accidents happen by the thousands every day all around the country. In fact, the National Safety Council (NSC) reports that more than 40,000 people died in 2017 in motor vehicle crashes. Automobile accidents are so common, many of us have been personally involved in a crash. And the cost, both physically and monetarily, is high. Fortune, citing NSC data, reports that in addition to loss of life, 4.6 million more people lived, but suffered serious injury. The resulting financial cost to society for death, injury, and property damage, comes in at a massive $432 billion.

When people reflect on an automobile accident, a common theme is that it seemed to occur in the blink of an eye, often with little warning. Even when there is time to react, it’s often momentary, resulting in reflexive decisions rather than carefully planned strategies. The sudden reactions themselves sometimes avert an accident, but in other cases actually exacerbate the situation or cause new harm. When all is said and done, there can be wide disagreement as to who ultimately caused the accident.

One contention that is sometimes raised by a party is that he or she was reacting to a sudden emergency. In this article, we will discuss the sudden emergency doctrine, and its effect on automobile accident cases in Oregon.

What Is the “Sudden Emergency” Doctrine?

To understand the doctrine of sudden emergency (often referred to simply as “emergency”), one must recall the elements of negligence that a plaintiff must prove in an automobile accident case. The plaintiff must produce evidence demonstrating that the defendant: (1) owed a duty of care to the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant breached the duty of care; (3) that the plaintiff suffered injuries; and (4) that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the injuries.

The concept of sudden emergency is a defense in which the defendant essentially claims that the plaintiff cannot prove the second element (i.e., that the defendant breached the duty of care), because the defendant was faced with an emergency situation not of his or her own making.

Historically, in many states, defendants have been able to obtain a jury charge on sudden emergency when supported by the facts of the case. Unfortunately, some of these states use (or used) language that arguably favors the defendant. As an example, we can examine a part of the history of the doctrine of emergency in Oregon.

Oregon Definition of Sudden Emergency Prior to 2008

Lane v. Brown, 138 Or. App. 34 (1995), is a good example of the historical status of the emergency doctrine in Oregon. In that case, the defendant’s truck hit a patch of ice, skidded across the centerline of a highway, and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle. At trial, the defendant raised the defense of emergency, and requested that the court charge the jury on the doctrine. The trial court agreed, and charged as follows:

People who are suddenly placed in a position of peril through no negligence of their own, and who are compelled to act without opportunity for reflection, are not negligent if they make such a choice as a reasonably careful person placed in such a position might make, even though they do not make the wisest choice.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. On appeal, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to give the emergency charge. The appellate court cited a number of facts, including the following:

  • The defendant was not speeding.
  • The weather was clear.
  • Before skidding, defendant had traveled approximately 200 miles and had not seen any other ice
  • The defendant had snow studded tires that were almost new.
  • When the defendant skidded, he didn’t brake, took his foot off the accelerator, and turned in the direction of the skid.
  • There was evidence that the defendant was driving carefully.

Current Emergency Doctrine Law in Oregon

The problem with cases like Lane v. Brown is that the jury charge misstates the law of negligence when it interjects the idea that a person may not be negligent even though they do not make “the wisest choice” in an emergency situation.

That’s exactly what the Oregon Supreme Court held in Bjorndal v. Weitman, 344 Or. 470, 184 P.3d 1115 (2008), when it held that the jury instruction used in Lane v. Brown would no longer be appropriate to use. The Bjorndal ruling makes sense – after all, if a jury is instructed to consider what a reasonable person would do in similar circumstances (the traditional negligence standard), then the jury can fairly consider all the factors of the case. This is the key to making sure that wrongdoers are held to the same standard and accountable to society.

Call with Questions

Evaluating automobile accidents and who is at fault can be complicated. If you’ve been involved in an automobile accident, you may have questions about liability, investigation, insurance, personal injuries, and lots of other issues that come up. At Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, our automobile accident attorneys are experienced in answering all of these questions. Please call and we will be happy to help.


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