Monday, January 21, 2019

Application of Sudden Emergency Rule Upheld; Also, Evidence of Post-Accident Alterations of Road by PennDOT Not Admissible


In the case of Mitchell v. Milburn, No. 344 C.D. 2017 (Pa. Cmwlth. Dec. 6, 2018 McCullough, Leavitt, and Cannon, J.) (Op. by McCullough, J.), the court ruled that the sudden emergency doctrine is an absolute defense to an allegation of negligence and is available to any Defendant who suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself or herself confronted with a perilous situation that permits no opportunity to assess the danger and respond appropriately.

The Plaintiff sued the two other drivers involved in the accident and also sued PennDOT apparently relative to the design of the intersection. 

The Plaintiff settled on a joint tort basis with the rear ending Defendant prior to trial for an unspecified amount, with the agreement being that that Defendant would remain on the verdict slip for purposes of apportioning the percentages of liability amongst the parties.  The other driver Defendant secured a non-suit under the facts presented.

The jury entered a $2.3 million dollar verdict in favor of the Plaintiff and assessed 100% of the liability on the rear-ending Defendant who had settled out prior to trial. 

The Plaintiff filed post-trial motions relative to the entry of a non-suit in favor of the driver-Defendant and relative to the trial court's refusal to allow into evidence the fact that PennDOT altered the intersection after this accident.

The court ruled that the Plaintiff’s version of the accident that she was hit from behind and shoved to the Defendant’s oncoming traffic lane established a sudden emergency as a matter of law from the perspective of the Defendant approaching in the oncoming lane.  

When reviewing the trial court's entry of a non-suit in favor of the oncoming Defendant-driver, the Commonwealth Court additionally relied upon the well-settled rule of law that a mere happening of an accident is not evidence of negligence.  

Also of note in this decision is the Commonwealth Court’s ruling that Defendant PennDOT’s subsequent alteration of the intersection was inadmissible in the case as evidence of a subsequent remedial measure.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK. 

I send thanks to Attorney James M. Beck of the Philadelphia offices of Reed Smith law firm for bringing this case to my attention. 

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