The Indiana Court of Appeals recently upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of the estate of a vehicle driver who suffered a heart attack and became unconscious while driving, which resulted in his vehicle speeding up, going off the roadway, and crashing into a nearby house. The vehicle driver died and his passenger, who brought suit against his estate, suffered severe injuries.
In Indiana, a plaintiff must establish three elements to prove negligence on behalf of a defendant: (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty by failing to comply with the applicable standard of care; and (3) a compensable injury proximately caused by the breach of that duty. Under Indiana law, individuals must conform their conduct to that of a reasonable person under like circumstances. Summary judgment is appropriate when the defendant negates at least one of the elements of the plaintiff’s claim. While the element of breach is usually a question for the jury, where the relevant facts are undisputed and lead only to a single inference or conclusion, the court may determine as a matter of law whether the defendant breached a duty.
The defendant estate in this case claimed it was entitled to summary judgment on the element of breach because the vehicle driver could not be found to have acted unreasonably in causing the collision when he suffered a heart attack and was rendered unconscious. The plaintiff passenger argued that the defendant driver was negligent for driving in the first place given his medical condition. While the vehicle driver had recently suffered a prior heart attack and undergone treatment related to his heart condition, at the time of the collision, he had been cleared to drive by his medical providers. Based upon this evidence, the Court found that the passenger plaintiff failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant driver’s sudden physical incapacity was reasonably foreseeable, so as to hold him negligent for driving in the first place.
The Indiana Court of Appeals declined to formally adopt or recognize a specific doctrine or defense of “sudden medical emergency” or “sudden loss of consciousness,” in cases where individuals are alleged to have caused a personal injury through negligence, as in the Court’s view, general negligence principals were sufficient to decide the issues in this case. The Court differentiated the “sudden emergency doctrine,” which Indiana has adopted, not as an affirmative defense, but as a definition of the conduct expected of reasonable persons in emergency situations.
Under the “sudden emergency doctrine,” a person confronted with sudden or unexpected circumstances calling for immediate action are not expected to exercise the same judgment of one acting under normal circumstances. To take advantage of the “sudden emergency doctrine,” a defendant must not have created or brought about the emergency through the defendant’s own negligence, the danger confronting the defendant must appear so imminent as to leave no time for deliberation, and the defendant’s apprehension of the danger must itself be reasonable.
The issue in this case was different than those under the “sudden emergency doctrine” because the issue in this case was not whether the defendant responded reasonably to an emergency situation, but rather whether a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have changed his or her conduct before the medical emergency occurred based on his or her knowledge of the danger. Thus, just because your vehicle has been struck by another through no fault of your own, does not always mean you will be able to recover from the party who caused the car accident to occur through their loss of control over their vehicle if it was a result of a sudden medical emergency they had no reason to anticipate.
Read the full Indiana Court of Appeals opinion in Denson v. Estate of Delmer Dillard and Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Company here.