How Does a "Sudden Medical Emergency" Affect a Car Accident Injury Claim?

A "sudden medical emergency" defense may sometimes be used by a defendant driver who is alleged to have caused a car accident that resulted in serious bodily injury or death to another person. In certain circumstances, the "sudden medical emergency" defense may absolve a driver - and therefore the driver's insurance company - of any and all financial liability for the damages (related to injuries and otherwise) that result from that accident.

However, there are a few criteria that must be met in order for a defendant driver to be able to make a viable claim to the "sudden medical emergency" defense. Under Washington state law, a driver who becomes sudeenly stricken by an unforeseen loss of consciousness that causes the driver to lose control of a vehicle is not chargeable with negligence. In the court of law, a defendant must prove beyond speculation and conjecture the following:

  1. The driver was rendered unconscious just prior to the collision or event;
  2. The loss of consciousness was sudden (the driver was not in and out of consciousness over a period of time leading up to the collision which would put him on notice that he should not driver and therefore should pull over);
  3. The sudden loss of consciousness was unforeseen. This element is often the one that is disputed. It may require a plaintiff to 1. obtain the defendant’s medical records, 2. have the records reviewed by a competent physician, 3. Depose the defendant’s physicians, 4. Have the defendant examined by one of the plaintiff’s medical experts.

Table Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 

How to Determine if the Defense is Valid

The medical emergency defense should not be taken lightly. This defense can completely absolve the defendant from all liability. Under these circumstances, the plaintiff could suffer catastrophic injuries and high damages, but not receive any compensation, even under his or her own UM insurance coverage because the UM carrier is allowed to assert any defense that the defendant driver is entitled to use.

This can also prevent victims from recovering damages under their own insurance policy's Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist coverage. This would likely come as a surprise to many accident victims who believe that their own insurance company would be on their side after a tragic accident that results in the defendant's insurance company denying liability for an accident. However, even the victim's own insurance company will take any necessary steps to avoid paying out for the victim's own injuries due to the "sudden medical emergency" defense. 

Consulting with a qualified personal injury attorney may be the best way for an accident victim to determine whether or not the sudden medical emergency defense is viable under state law. There are a number of different factors to take into account in cases such as this, and the reality is that all insurance companies involved will do anything in their power to deny a bodily injury claim, especially when the damages are high.