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Tort/Negligence – Sudden Emergency Doctrine – Brake Failure – Continued Driving

Tort/Negligence – Sudden Emergency Doctrine – Brake Failure – Continued Driving

When defendant realized the brakes had failed on the car she was driving, she bypassed a couple of places into which she could have turned because they didn’t seem safe. She turned into the parking lot of a convenience store and, traveling about 10 mph, struck the convenience store, upsetting a display, which struck plaintiff on the arm. Given that the brakes had failed and defendant was going to collide with something, her continued driving did not deprive her of the right to a jury instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine.

We affirm the judgment in defendant’s favor.

The doctrine of sudden emergency applies when a defendant is confronted by an emergency situation not of his own making and requires the defendant to act only as a reasonable person would react to similar emergency circumstances. Where evidence exists regarding the issue of a sudden brake failure caused not by the defendant’s own negligence, it is prejudicial error not to instruct the jury on the doctrine of sudden emergency.

Plaintiff argues defendant noticed the brake failure several miles from the collision site and spoke on the phone with her grandmother (the owner of the car) for 60 to 120 seconds following the discovery. Therefore, plaintiff contends, given the distance and time defendant traveled, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude the brake failure required defendant to immediately react.

Plaintiff’s argument here—the trial court erred in its instruction because the brake failure did not require defendant to act immediately—aims to effectually limit the definition of a sudden emergency to include only those situations in which a defendant is able to immediately resolve the situation, thereby confusing immediate action with immediate resolution. While our precedent indicates the doctrine applies only where an emergency situation exists requiring the defendant to take immediate action to avoid injury, we must also consider the facts surrounding the alleged emergency situation. Plaintiff’s argument fails to recognize that a brake failure will generally, inevitably end in an unavoidable accident, in spite of a defendant acting immediately to avoid injury.

The application of the doctrine does not focus on the instant in which the defendant was able to resolve the emergency, but rather on whether, taking the emergency into account, the defendant acted as a reasonable person would, given similar circumstances.

Here, defendant was driving toward downtown Durham when she realized the car would slow, but not stop. Defendant noted she was unable to pull the car over before she reached the Buy Quick, as other options – a crowded church parking lot and another lot known as a hangout for vagrants – were not safe or feasible.

Because defendant introduced substantial evidence of a sudden brake failure and substantial evidence as to her actions after the discovery of the brake failure, it was not an abuse of discretion to instruct the jury on the doctrine—assuming defendant was not otherwise negligent. Further, because the presentation of evidence was such that a jury could decide whether defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances, the trial court did not err in instructing the jury on the doctrine of sudden emergency, given the emergency situation alone.

Plaintiff also argues that, if an emergency existed, the emergency was caused by defendant’s own negligence as she continued to drive after realizing there was a brake failure.

Plaintiff here argues not that defendant was negligent as to the brake failure itself, but negligent in the conduct she undertook upon the discovery of the brake failure. Further, plaintiff contends defendant was negligent because she lost control under static conditions, as indicated by her collision with Buy Quick, and not after an unexpected change in condition.

Defendant had no choice but to continue driving, under the “static condition” of having failed brakes, as the emergent situation faced by defendant was that she could not stop her vehicle. Further, defendant introduced evidence of the brake failure and the reason she neglected to stop prior to Buy Quick. Thus, defendant not only introduced evidence of an unexpected change in condition for the worse—the brake failure—but also of a sudden change in condition she could not have avoided through the exercise of due care—as she was inevitably going to run into something regardless of how reasonably she acted. As such, we hold the trial court did not err in instructing on the doctrine of sudden emergency, as it is for the jury to decide whether defendant’s conduct was negligent after realizing her brakes failed.

No error.

Chahdi v. Mack (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-068-23, 14 pp.) (Jefferson Griffin, J.) Appealed from Durham County District Court (James Hill, J.) Chelsi Edwards and Robert Perry for plaintiff; Kara Bordman and Camilla DeBoard for defendant. North Carolina Court of Appeals


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