In Sept. 2014, three cars were driving in the on-ramp to the U.S. 101 freeway in Santa Maria to merge into the southbound lanes. A tractor-trailer was being driven in the #3 lane of the freeway, which was the far right lane into which the three cars were trying to merge. The driver of the tractor-trailer, Charles Laramee, saw the three vehicles on the on-ramp and noticed that a black car was driving aggressively behind the front car. The front car was being driven by a woman named Michelle Adams.
As Adams and the black car got close to the freeway’s entrance, the black car aggressively moved over into the lane ahead of Adams while making an obscene gesture at her. Adams then merged behind the black car and in front of the tractor-trailer. The third car was driven by Joshua Shiver. He saw that there appeared to be enough room to merge in front of the tractor-trailer and behind the car driven by Adams. After he merged, the black car in front of Adams slammed on its brakes, causing Adams to slam on her brakes to avoid hitting the black car. Shiver also had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting Adams. Laramee applied his brakes but was unable to stop his fully loaded tractor-trailer before it crashed into the rear end of Shiver’s car. Shiver filed a lawsuit against Laramee and John Shapka Trucking Ltd., Laramee’s employer.
Issue: Whether the sudden emergency defense is available in a situation involving road rage?
The defendants, Charles Laramie and John Shapka Trucking Ltd., filed a motion for summary judgment after a deposition in which Shiver testified that he witnessed that Laramie had slowed before he merged behind Adams and the black car on the highway. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the sudden emergency doctrine. They argued that Laramie’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances and that he could not have foreseen the road rage braking by the driver of the black car. Shiver had an expert who opined that Laramie’s actions were negligent because he did not slow down when he saw the black car’s driver driving aggressively on the on-ramp behind Adams. The trial court ruled for the defendants and stated that the sudden emergency doctrine applied under the circumstances. Shiver appealed the trial court’s ruling.
Rule: Defendants who act reasonably in response to a sudden emergency that they did not cause will not be liable if injuries result even if it is later determined that taking a different course of action would have been safer.
In California, the elements of the sudden emergency doctrine are outlined in CACI No. 452. The sudden emergency doctrine is an affirmative defense against negligence claims. Under the doctrine, a defendant will be shielded from liability claims if he or she acted reasonably in reaction to a sudden and unexpected emergency as long as he or she did not cause the emergency. The protection from liability will exist even if another course of action is later determined to have been a safer option than what the defendant did.
On appeal, the appellate court examined whether the sudden emergency doctrine applies in a situation involving road rage. The court considered whether or not the truck driver should have reasonably foreseen that the black car would suddenly brake in front of Adams after seeing the driver driving aggressively behind her on the on-ramp and passing her to merge in front of her car. The sudden emergency doctrine is only available in cases in which the unexpected emergency is presented so quickly that the defendant doesn’t have time to react more reasonably. The court also noted that defendants will be denied the use of the affirmative defense if their own negligence contributed to or created the danger. Under the doctrine, the test is whether or not the defendant took the type of action that a reasonably prudent person in his or her circumstances would have likewise taken.
The court analyzed whether Laramie’s actions under the circumstances were what a reasonably prudent person in a similar situation would have taken. The court considered the plaintiff’s expert opinion, construing it liberally. The expert had based his opinion that Laramie was negligent on the basis that he believed that the driver had not slowed down when he saw what was occurring in the on-ramp. However, the court noted that Shiver had testified at his deposition that Laramie had slowed considerably from the time that Shiver first noticed his truck and when Shiver merged into the #3 lane in front of him. The court also analyzed whether Laramie should have reasonably foreseen that the aggressive driver of the black car would brake in front of Adams in an apparent act of road rage.
The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling for the defendants. It ruled that Laramie had acted reasonably under the circumstances and that he could not be expected to foresee an act of road rage. The court noted that the expert had based his testimony on the idea that Laramie had not slowed when he saw the aggressive driving behavior of the black car around Adams while they were on the on-ramp. However, Shiver had testified at the deposition that Laramie had slowed considerably from the time that Shiver first saw him and when Shiver merged. Since Shiver testified that Laramie did slow down, the appeals court ruled that he was stuck with his own deposition testimony. Since the court found that the sudden emergency doctrine applied in the case, the dismissal of the case by the lower court was affirmed.
People who are injured in multi-car accidents that are caused by aggressive drivers in acts of road rage might want to get legal help. Experienced personal injury lawyers may be able to identify the aggressive drivers so that their clients might be able to recover compensation for their losses. To learn about the rights that you might have in your injury claim, call Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC today to schedule your free consultation.