by David McDivitt
Today, the Colorado Supreme Court abolished a stale and largely irrelevant legal doctrine known as the “Sudden Emergency Doctrine.”
The Sudden Emergency Doctrine has been muddling the civil justice system for years (the civil justice system is the part of our court system that we deal with when representing people who’ve been injured by reckless and negligent drivers), and the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision today, though a bit overdue, is nonetheless a move in the right direction.
In a nutshell, the Sudden Emergency Doctrine is a defense that drivers sometimes use when they cause a crash to try to explain away their conduct as somehow resulting from something outside of their control. They use the defense to say that the reason they caused the crash was due to something outside of their control and that they were faced with a “sudden emergency.” The problem with this defense is that when drivers are faced with something truly outside of their control – and something they could not have prepared for or anticipated – their conduct likely doesn’t even constitute negligence anyway. They don’t need a defense to their negligence because they weren’t negligent.
Over the years, though, the Sudden Emergency Doctrine has been invoked by defendants to try to explain away their negligent, and sometimes reckless, conduct and it has frequently led to confusion with juries and those interpreting judicial decisions. A great example of the way it has been used to try to explain away negligent conduct is that of a defendant claiming he was faced with a sudden emergency when he slid on ice in the middle of a Colorado winter. A person is negligent if they fail to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation; therefore, if a reasonably prudent person would have been driving with greater care on a snowy and/or icy road, knowing that snowy Colorado roads can turn icy quickly and require a heightened level of care, then the defendant in our example was negligent. Plain and simply negligent. To try to blame their conduct on a sudden emergency is a blatant attempt to dodge accountability for their actions and conduct, and it will no longer fly in the Colorado court system. If, however, something truly beyond their control took place which caused the crash then they don’t need to worry about invoking the stale and abused Sudden Emergency Doctrine because their conduct arguably wasn’t negligent to begin with.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision today is a housecleaning measure designed to clear up confusion, reduce inconsistencies with our jury verdicts, and help support the overall goal of ensuring that our civil justice system remains rooted in the notions of fairness and equality.