Car Accident Caused by Slow Merge Raises Legal Issue of Sudden Emergency Doctrine

Car accidents can be difficult to navigate because of conflicting evidence, opinions and the fact the circumstances often lead the people involve rattled and unable to recall facts clearly. In a recent case, Bethany Dixon appealed a trial court judgment against her involving a vehicular accident that occurred on I-20 near Acadia in Bienville Parish. In part because Ms. Dixon could not recall exactly how the accident occurred, the court relied on the evidence put forth by the defendant, Charles Tucker, who rear-ended her as she merged onto I-20 from an on ramp. Mr. Tucker believed Ms Dixon was travelling at around 30 mph while he was travelling at the speed limit, 70 mph.

The trial court relied on the sudden emergency doctrine, which states that when a driver merges onto a limited access highway, the driver it merges in front of will not be liable if the lead driver created a hazard that could not be avoided. Here, the court accepted the narrative that Mr. Tucker rear-ended Ms Dixon’s vehicle because Ms. Dixon failed to signal or yield to oncoming traffic, and Mr. Tucker did not have enough notice to avoid the hazard Ms Dixon created. In addition, an eighteen-wheeler in the lane next to him prevented him from switching lanes.

Appealing a ruling is a risk, and is often a question of strategy. In this case, Ms. Dixon was unable to win the appeal in part because the Appellate Court was deferential to the trial court. Ms. Dixon claimed that the trial court erred in its factual findings, rather than legal findings, so the Appellate Court could not simply consider the case anew from start to finish. Instead, the Appellate Court could only reverse the lower court’s finding if the lower court did not have a sufficient factual basis for its findings. Here, the Appellate Court found a reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s outcome, and upheld its decision.

On top of not receiving the ruling she looked for, Ms. Dixon was also required to pay the costs of the appeal. Since litigation costs can be quite high, it is crucial to find an excellent legal team when deciding whether or not to appeal a court’s decision. Part of making this strategic decision is relying on the counsel of lawyers who know what kind of standard an Appellate Court will apply. Will they be deferential to the lower court, or will they conduct their own independent review of the case without necessarily accepting the lower court’s factual findings?

It is important to find the best lawyers who can explain what the risk of appealing is, the strength of your case, and what arguments to present. An appeal is difficult in of itself, but having an attorney who carefully navigates the original case can help advance your cause.