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There is No Such Thing as the “Sudden Emergency Defense” according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (PA)

January 15, 2021

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In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Graham-v.-Check.pdf">Graham v. Check</a>,</em> the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the “sudden emergency doctrine” should not be understood as a defense to alleged negligent driving. Further, a claimed “sudden emergency” will not diminish the standard of care drivers should exercise.
<p style="text-align: justify;">In the early morning hours of March 6, 2018, plaintiff Francis Graham crossed the street without a “walk signal.” He was wearing all dark clothing. The defendant, Larry Check, did not see Graham until he was only about seven feet away, and at that point, although he applied his brakes, it was too late to stop. Check struck Graham, causing him injuries. Graham subsequently filed suit against Check for negligent driving.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Check defended on the basis that he had faced a sudden emergency, which he did not create, and that his response was reasonable under the circumstances. The trial court instructed the jury of the elements Check was required show to prove the “sudden emergency” defense. The jury then returned a verdict for Check; Graham appealed; the Superior Court affirmed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately granted review.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the “sudden emergency doctrine” is not a defense; but rather, it is a set of circumstances the jury should apply when considering the defendant’s conduct. The court indicated that regardless of any “sudden emergency,” a driver has a higher burden to act carefully while operating an automobile—especially at street crossings. The court reasoned further that whether a “sudden emergency” present itself should be considered in the context of defendant’s negligence as a whole. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded the case based on the trial court’s improper jury charge.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to John Lang for his contribution to this post.  Please contact <a href="mailto:tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Thomas Bracken</a> with any questions.</p>

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