New York Car Accidents–The Emergency Doctrine

A recent decision by the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court, in the case of Lifson v City of Syracuse and Klink highlights the “emergency doctrine”, which can have a huge effect in motor vehicle accident cases, as it did in this case. Irene Lifson, along with the defendant Derek Klink both worked in the MONY Plaza, a large office building in Syracuse, New York. On February 29, 2000, at approximately 4:00 PM, Mr. Klink made a left turn heading westbound near the building where many employees cross the street to get retrieve their cars. As he was making his left turn, Mr. Klink claimed that he was momentarily blinded by the sun, and his vehicle struck and killed Ms. Lifson.

During the wrongful death trial, Klink’s attorney requested that the jury being given the emergency charge, which states in essence that if a driver is confronted with a “sudden and unexpected” condition, not of his or her own making, which leaves little or no time for deliberation, the driver may not be held responsible if his or her actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Giving a jury the emergency instruction is a very powerful and persuasive advantage for a defendant, since it provides the jury with a means to absolve the defendant of all responsibility for his or her negligence, and coming from the presiding judge, implies (even if not intended this way) that the judge believes that an emergency existed at the time of the accident.

This is exactly what occurred in the lower Court trial in the Lifson case, as the jury decided that Mr. Klink had been faced with a sudden emergency of sun glare in his eyes, and the jury decided that the accident was primarily the fault of Irene Lifson and to a smaller extent, the City of Syracuse. However, in a decision written by Judge Lippman, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the Court reversed the lower Court decision and remanded the Lifson case for a new trial. The rationale for the reversal was that this was not a sudden, unforeseeable emergency that Mr. Klink was confronted with. Rather, at 4:00 PM. on a February day heading westbound, Mr. Klink should have anticipated that he would be faced with sun glare, and he could have taken measures to avoid this (including wearing sunglasses, although this was not mentioned specifically in the decision).

Thus, this was a circumstance of Mr. Klink’s own creation, and not a “sudden, unforeseeable, unexpected” emergency. Judge Lippman distinguished previous cases in which the Court did find a sudden emergency, including the numerous cases involving a child suddenly darting into traffic, leaving the driver no time to react before striking the child, which would constitute a true emergency. Another example of the possible applicability of the emergency doctrine would be cases of black ice when the roads are otherwise completely clear, and the weather is not a factor at the time of the accident.

In my own trial experience, there is a huge battle between plaintiff’s attorneys and defendant’s attorneys on the emergency charge, involving memoranda of law and oral argument, which was exemplified in the original case in Lifson. The charge gives the jury the impression, despite any efforts by the presiding judge to avoid this, that the defendant was confronted with conditions and circumstances that were not of his own creation. This often leads to “defense verdicts”, in which the injured victim is left with no compensation for substantial and sometimes fatal injuries. Luckily, in Lifson, Judge Lippman rectified an unfair and unjustified result from the lower Court, and a new jury will now decide the Lifson case.

Contact the Westchester County Car Crash Lawyers online or toll free at 888-761-7633 if you or a loved one suffer serious injuries in an automobile accident, truck accident or motorcycle accident for a free initial consultation with an experienced trial lawyer who will fight the insurance companies to maximize compensation for your injuries, lost earnings and medical and hospital expenses.