Iberville Parish Car Crash Explores Doctrine of Sudden Emergency

Under Louisiana law, the doctrine of sudden emergency is a defense available to a defendant who is confronted with a sudden and unexpected situation of danger and who responds as a reasonably prudent person would under the circumstances. The doctrine serves to limit the defendant’s liability even if it is later determined that he did not chose the ideal course of action in response to the sudden danger.

The Court of Appeal has expressed:

it is the settled jurisprudence of this state that a person is not obligated to exercise the same degree of care or judgment as is required under ordinary circumstances… A mistake of judgment or failure to adopt the best or wisest course for avoiding injury does not necessarily result in a finding of negligence. To contend otherwise is to attempt to exact hindsight instead of foresight from a motorist faced with a sudden emergency (Fouche v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 153 So.2d 180 (La. App. 2d Cir. 1963).

The case of Vaughn v. Hebert, 333 So. 2d 304 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1976) provides an example of the doctrine. On the evening of October 30, 1973, Randy Herbert was driving his car on La. Hwy. 75 near Bayou Pigeon in Iberville Parish. Also in the car was Benny Vaughn. Hebert was traveling south on the two-lane highway. He saw a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction as it came around a curve and partially encroached into the southbound lane. Herbert observed the car for a few more moments and realized it had not returned to its proper lane of traffic. In an attempt to avoid a head-on collision, Hebert went off the blacktop onto the road’s shoulder. When he attempted to return to the road, Herbert lost control of the car, went down the levee into a canal, and hit a tree. Vaughn, the passenger, was injured in the crash and sued Herbert for damages.

At trial, Herbert testified that “by the time I seen [the oncoming car], I didn’t have nothing to do but get out of his way.” Also, in response to a question about why he tried to pull back on the road, Herbert said, “I had a canal there, and I didn’t want to go in it” (333 So. 2d at 306). On cross examination, Vaughn testified that everything “was happening pretty fast” and that he thought a collision with the oncoming car was going to occur. The trial judge, after a visit to the scene of the accident with the parties and their counsel, found that Hebert was confronted with a sudden emergency not of his own making and to which he did not contribute and, therefore, that he was not liable. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court, concluding that Hebert was “faced with a sudden emergency created entirely by the gross negligence of the approaching motorist” (333 So. 2d at 306).

The Herbert case illustrates that although drivers who encounter a dangerous situation are still required to exercise reasonable care, the standard takes into account the nature of the emergency. The law wishes to encourage drivers to take measures to avoid injuries whenever possible, and courts are reluctant to second-guess a driver’s honest and reflexive response to a dangerous event.

If you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who understands negligience law in Louisiana.