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The Sudden Medical Emergency Defense

Submitted by Maureen Martinez on 02 Jun, 2022

When handling a matter that involves a medical emergency suffered by the alleged tortfeasor, it is important to analyze whether the defense of sudden medical emergency is available. If the defense is established, it is a complete bar to negligence.

Over the years the defense has been addressed as follows:

  • “If motorist, without premonition or warning, has a sudden attack and loses control of automobile and causes an accident, there is no negligence.” “It is not even simple negligence if one has a sudden attack, loses control of his car and causes an accident if he had no premonition or warning. In such event the very foundation of negligence—knowledge and hence foreseeability—is absent.” Bridges v. Speer, 79 So.2d 679 (Fla. 1955)
  • “Whether the defense of sudden and unexpected loss of capacity or consciousness on the part of a vehicle operator is available generally boils down to a question of foreseeability.” Feagle v. Purvis, Jr., 891 So.2d 1096 (Fla. 5th D.C.A. 2005)
  • “The unforeseeable loss of consciousness while driving is a complete defense to the charge of negligence and gross negligence.” L.C. Gandy v. E.R. Outlaw, 417 So.2d 1134 (Fla. 4th D.C.A. 1982)
  • “Negligence is not chargeable against the operator of a motor vehicle who, while driving, suffers a sudden loss of consciousness from an unforeseen cause.” Marcum v. Hayward, 136 So.3d 695 (Fla. 2d D.C.A. 2014)

If the defense is a possibility, it is important to have information on the alleged tortfeasor’s medical history. In the Wingate matter the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the decedent driver’s estate based on the sudden medical emergency defense. Wingate v. United Services Automobile Association, 480 So.2d 665 (Fla. 5th D.C.A 1986) In support of summary judgment the estate filed (uncontradicted) affidavits of doctors and others regarding the decedent having “had no reason to expect that he would suffer the heart attack…,” ; that the accident was caused by an unexpected heart attack just before the accident. Id. The appellate court, relying in part on Baker v. Hausman, affirmed the trial court’s decision in finding that the decedent’s statement of not feeling well just before the heart attack did not create an issue of fact on the issue of foreseeability. Id.; see also, Baker v. Hausman, 68 So.2d 572, 573 (Fla. 1953)(“From the complaint in this case it appears that defendant was ill but as to how ill until she suffered an ‘attack or stroke’ and lost control of the car, is not shown.”; “The complaint does not reveal premonition of an impending ‘attack or stroke’ or sudden unconsciousness. There is showing that defendant was not ‘feeling well’ and that shortly before the accident she drove the car back and forth across the road and into the ditch, but that does not show premonition of a stroke. Neither are the allegations of the complaint sufficient to show that defendant was so ill as to be incapable of driving. It is alleged that she looked ill but that is far from showing that she was incapable of driving.”)

In the Abreu matter the appellate court found there were triable issues on suddenness and foreseeability and reversed the trial court. Abreu v. F.E. Development Recycling, Inc., 35 So.3d 968 (Fla. 5th D.C.A. 2010). The appellate court explained the driver’s history of aneurysm was sufficient to raise a question on foreseeability. Id. at 969. In reaching its decision the court reiterated the general rule, “the operator of an automobile, vessel or other mode of transportation who unexpectedly loses consciousness or becomes incapacitated is not chargeable with negligence as a result of his or her loss of control.” Id. However, explained the following must be proven to establish the defense of sudden medical emergency:

  1. The defendant suffered a loss of consciousness or capacity
  2. The loss of consciousness or capacity occurred before the defendant’s purportedly negligent conduct
  3. The loss of consciousness was sudden
  4. The loss of consciousness or capacity was neither foreseen, nor foreseeable