Indiana Court of Appeals Affirms Trial Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment for Car Accident Defendant Based Upon Unforeseeable Medical Emergency

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed the grant of summary judgment for a defendant driver in a car accident case finding the driver suffered a medical emergency that was not reasonably foreseeable. In Patrick v. Henthorn, Walter E. Patrick, III (“Patrick”) filed a lawsuit against April J. Henthorn (“Henthorn”) arising out of an intersection collision in Indianapolis, Indiana, which resulted in Patrick suffering several injuries and incurring more than $50,000.00 in medical bills. Henthorn, who had ornithine transcarbamylase (“OTC”), a “protein allergy,” raised an affirmative defense to Patrick’s lawsuit and filed a motion for summary judgment stating she lost consciousness at the time of the collision due to a sudden emergency not of her own making.

Henthorn testified that prior to the accident she was feeling fine and in good health, but at the time of the accident she suddenly and unexpectedly felt light-headed, flushed, and dizzy and thereafter lost consciousness. She testified when she regained consciousness, she was in her stopped vehicle adjacent to a telephone pole. She testified she did not recall the crash. Henthorn’s doctor, who had treated Henthorn for her OTC deficiency for many years, testified that he believed Henthorn suffered a sudden change in mental status with loss of consciousness prior to the collision that resulted from an unforeseen elevation in her blood ammonia levels due to her OTC deficiency, which caused Henthorn to become incapacitated just before losing control of her car and crashing.

Patrick filed a response to Henthorn’s motion for summary judgment designating the affidavits from Henthorn and her doctor, Henthorn’s deposition, and the accident report. Patrick argued Henthorn’s deposition testimony conflicted with her affidavit and her doctor’s affidavit when she testified in her deposition that she had not experienced lightheadedness or loss of consciousness in the past ten years. Patrick also raised discrepancies as to her testimony about how she felt prior to the accident and her version of the accident. After a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment in Henthorn’s favor, finding no inconsistencies in the designated evidence, or at most immaterial inconsistencies, and that Henthorn’s sudden physical incapacity was not foreseeable.

To win in a car accident case in Indiana based upon negligence, a claimant must show (1) a duty of care by the defendant driver, (2) breach of that duty of care, and (3) injuries resulting from the breach of the defendant’s duty. In this case, there was no dispute that Henthorn owed Patrick a duty of reasonable care in the operation of her vehicle and that Patrick suffered injuries because of the collision. The only dispute was whether Henthorn breached her duty of reasonable care.

Henthorn argued before the trial court and on appeal that she could not be found to have acted unreasonably when she lost consciousness prior to the collision and she did not act unreasonably when deciding to drive the day of the collision because her OTC deficiency was controlled, she felt fine the day of the collision, and she had no restrictions in place as to her ability to drive. Henthorn’s claimed “sudden medical emergency” is different than Indiana’s well-established sudden emergency doctrine, where the question was not whether Henthorn responded reasonably to an emergency situation, but whether Henthorn should have driven in the first place. However, Patrick argued on appeal that the issue in the case was whether Henthorn actually suffered a medical emergency, not whether Henthorn should have driven prior to the accident. Patrick argued Henthorn’s alleged inconsistent statements raised a genuine issue of material fact.

The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with Patrick’s characterizations of Henthorn’s deposition testimony. The Court found that when Henthorn testified in her deposition that she had not had episodes from her OTC deficiency in the past ten years, she meant she had not had episodes from her OTC deficiency in the past ten years prior to the collision. The Court found Henthorn’s deposition testimony as to her past medical history did not create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she suffered a medical emergency at the time of the collision. The Court found the designated evidence, including Henthorn’s affidavit, her doctor’s affidavit, and her deposition testimony demonstrated she suffered a medical emergency immediately prior to the accident, and Patrick presented no contradicting evidence. Furthermore, the Court found Patrick designated no evidence showing her medical emergency was reasonably foreseeable. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in Henthorn’s favor.

You can read the full opinion here.

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