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Tennessee Court of Appeals Addresses the Sudden Emergency Doctrine and Comparative Fault in Car Accident Cases

Tennessee courts, like most states, have adopted what is known as the sudden emergency doctrine for car accident and personal injury cases. This means a person who has a sudden or unexpected emergency which calls for immediate action, such as a stroke or loss of consciousness, is not expected to exercise the same accuracy of judgment as a person acting under normal circumstances and who has time for reflection and thought before acting. At one time, the sudden emergency doctrine operated as a defense as a matter of law against negligence claims. Later, according to the Supreme Court of Tennessee case McCall v. Wilder, the sudden emergency doctrine has been “subsumed into Tennessee’s comparative fault scheme.” As such, the doctrine should now “be considered as a factor in the total comparative fault analysis.”

Since the McCall decision, the “factor” language above has sparked controversy in other cases regarding whether the sudden emergency doctrine can still be considered in cases where comparative fault is not asserted as a defense. Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals was given another chance to explore this issue.

In Boshears v. Brooks, the plaintiff, Boshears, was a passenger in a vehicle that was struck by the defendant, Brooks. Boshears filed a negligence action against Brooks seeking recovery for his injuries. In his answer to Boshears’ complaint, Brooks claimed that he was not negligent because he had suffered a stroke immediately before the accident which resulted in a sudden and unforeseeable loss of consciousness. Importantly, however, Brooks did not assert comparative fault as a defense in his answer. Nevertheless, the Circuit Court of Anderson County allowed jury instructions on both loss of consciousness and the sudden emergency doctrine. After the jury determined that Brooks was not at fault for the collision, Boshears appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Boshears claimed the sudden emergency doctrine jury instruction should not have been given without comparative fault first being raised as a defense. The Tennessee Court of Appeals rejected Boshears’ position for the following reasons. First, regarding the Circuit Court’s authority to give the jury instruction at issue, the Court explained that a judge may properly give jury instructions on the law relevant to an issue of fact within the scope of the pleadings that is supported by material evidence.

Second, the Court said adopting Boshears’ position would lead to “illogical and unacceptable results.” The Court gave an example of a driver attempting to avoid a falling tree by swerving into the lane of another driver. In the Court’s opinion, the jury should be allowed to consider the sudden emergency doctrine in such a case, regardless of the fact that the first driver would not have a basis for claiming comparative fault as a defense against the claims of the second driver. In the Court’s view, the sudden emergency doctrine would be unavailable to the first driver if Boshears’ position was accepted. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the Circuit Court acted within its discretion by allowing the sudden emergency jury instruction even though Brooks did not raise comparative fault as a defense.

As the Boshears case illustrates, car accident litigation in Tennessee can present unique legal issues. Defendants can rely on defenses such as comparative fault and sudden emergency doctrine in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the wreck or reduce damages awarded to the plaintiff. To protect your legal rights, it is important to retain an experienced Memphis car accident lawyer who can properly investigate the case and develop an effective litigation strategy. If you have been injured in a car wreck, call Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz today at 1-800-LAW-4004 for a free consultation. Our team of attorneys can answer your questions and help point you in the right direction.