The sudden emergency jury instruction should be confined to the case in which the emergency is not of the routine sort produced by the impending accident but arises from events the driver could not be expected to anticipate. In those few cases in which the instruction is given, it would be important to explain that the existence of a sudden emergency and reaction to it are only some of the factors to be considered in determining what is reasonable conduct under the circumstances. Even though a judge may exercise his discretion and give a sudden emergency instruction in a particular case, it will rarely, if ever, be error to refuse to give it.
Defendant observed a vehicle driving the wrong way heading directly towards him. To avoid a head-on collision, defendant swerved and struck plaintiff's vehicle. Plaintiff driver brought an action against defendant. At trial the jury was charged as to the "sudden emergency" instruction, stating that in determining whether a person acted reasonably, a person confronted with a sudden emergency that deprives him of time to contemplate could not be held to the same standard of care as who had time to deliberate. The jury found for defendant. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court. Plaintiff appealed and the appellate court's judgment was affirmed.
Did the trial judge gravely abuse his discretion in giving the sudden emergency instruction?
The court held that a sudden emergency was simply one factor in determining reasonable care. The court ruled that because the instruction is subsumed within the general concept of negligence, trial courts should only give it in rare cases where the emergency was not of a routine nature but arose from events one could not have anticipated. The court noted that many "emergencies" were predictable in modern-day driving conditions. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving the instruction. There had been no antecedent negligence by defendant who faced an emergency not ordinarily to have been anticipated. The reaction of swerving across a double yellow line was reflexive in nature.