The Legal Examiner Affiliate Network The Legal Examiner The Legal Examiner The Legal Examiner search feed instagram google-plus avvo phone envelope checkmark mail-reply spinner error close
Skip to main content

Accidents happen. Unfortunately, along with the bad luck of a car accident, comes injuries, medical bills, dealing with insurance, lost wages, and in many cases, lawsuits. 

In Virginia, two possible legal defenses can be raised to defend someone from liability in a lawsuit involving an accident that was caused by an “emergency.” They are known as the sudden emergency and medical emergency doctrines. They are used based on different circumstances, but similar in that they are designed to prove a person is not negligent (at fault for an accident) when events are beyond his or her control.

What is considered a sudden emergency?

Virginia Model Civil Jury Instruction No.7.000 states in part: “A sudden emergency is an event or a combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action without giving time for the deliberate exercise of judgment. If you believe from the evidence that the [defendant], without negligence on his part, was confronted with a sudden emergency and acted as a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances of this case, he was not [negligent].”

In Virginia, when someone files a personal injury lawsuit claiming a defendant caused a collision, the party filing the lawsuit has the burden to prove that the defendant was negligent. If the defendant raises the defense of sudden emergency, the burden of proof is placed on the party claiming that a sudden emergency existed and it was an unexpected event that called for quick action without giving time for a safe response. 

A common example of a sudden emergency is an animal suddenly running in the middle of the roadway. Ultimately it is going to be a decision of the Judge or Jury to determine if the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances to prevail on a sudden emergency defense. Raising the defense of sudden emergency is very fact specific—there is an inherent difference if a driver swerves to avoid hitting a deer in the middle of the road versus a squirrel. It is all about what a reasonable person is expected to do under similar circumstances. 

What is a medical emergency?

While this doctrine is similar, it focuses on unexpected medical emergencies. The Virginia Supreme Court distinguished the difference between sudden emergency and medical emergency in Hancock-Underwood v. Knight, 277 Va. 127 (2009). In this case, Hancock suffered an acute medical crisis that caused him to lose consciousness and collide with Knight’s vehicle. The Virginia Supreme Court held that Sudden Emergency did not apply in this situation because Hancock was unconscious at the time of the collision and therefore was incapable of any action. Therefore, a sudden emergency defense was not applicable because it requires some type of action. The Court further noted that this would be a medical emergency.

Virginia Model Civil Jury Instruction No. 7.005 states in part: “A medical emergency occurs when the [defendant] is suddenly stricken by an illness that he had no reason to anticipate and which renders it impossible for him to control his [automobile]. If you believe from the evidence that the [defendant] was confronted by a medical emergency, then he was not negligent.”

Consider this. A 50-year-old healthy man gets into his car after a hike. As he drives on the interstate, he is overcome with a tightening in his chest. He moves his car towards the exit ramp, but he has a heart attack and falls unconscious before he gets off the road. He then crashes into another car injuring its passengers.

Under these circumstances, the medical emergency doctrine could be used as a defense. If the driver believed he was in good health and was following the rules of the road, it is arguable he did nothing wrong and therefore should not be held liable for the accident. A medical emergency can encompass any type of medical situation where a driver was suddenly stricken by an illness that he or she had no reason to anticipate and which renders it impossible for him or her to control his or her car.

However, if a person has a medical emergency while driving a car and injures another, it is important to note that the medical emergency defense cannot be used if there is evidence the defendant knew, or should have known, a medical condition could impact the ability to drive. 

It is also worth noting that a plaintiff can argue sudden emergency or medical emergency as well, if the defense raises the argument of contributory negligence. The same set of jury instructions would still apply if this is the case.

An accident involving an emergency circumstance can be a challenging situation to navigate. The attorneys at Curcio Law are here to help you determine your legal options. For more information, give us a call or text us at 703-836-3366, email, or visit

Comments for this article are closed, but you may still contact the author privately.