Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Offers Guidance on the Application of the Sudden Emergency Doctrine in Pedestrian Cases

In the case of Graham v. Check, No. 42 WAP 2019 (Pa. Dec. 22, 2020)(Op. By Wecht, J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the standards for when the sudden emergency defense should be applied in a motor vehicle accident case.

In his Majority Opinion, Justice Wecht noted that Pennsylvania law “recognizes that sometimes injurious accidents are not caused by carelessness, but because events conspire to create a situation so urgent and unexpected that the person alleged to be blameworthy had little or no practical opportunity to avert the harm.” See Op. at p. 1.

In the Majority Opinion, it was reaffirmed that the burden of supporting the application of the sudden emergency doctrine lies with the party asserting it. See Op. at p. 5. Also reaffirmed was the rule that, if the emergency could have been avoided by the exercise of reasonable care, the doctrine should not be applied and instructed to the jury. See Op. at p. 6.

Justice Wecht confirmed that when the evidence in a case suggests that a “sudden emergency” may be evidenced in the record at trial, “the presiding judge may instruct a jury that, should it determine that such an emergency contributed to the accident, it should assess the defendant’s performance commensurately.” Id.

In this regard, Justice Wecht also acknowledged that “since the advent of the automobile, Pennsylvania law has also imposed a heightened standard of care upon drivers to exercise particular vigilance when it is reasonably foreseeable that a pedestrian will cross their path, particularly at intersections.” Id. On page 6 of his Opinion, Justice Wecht reiterated that the application of the sudden emergency doctrine is “[c]ounterposed” against the “bedrock principle that a driver bears a heightened duty relative to pedestrians crossing at intersections. Id.

In this pedestrian versus motor vehicle accident case of Graham v Check, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the trial court in this case erred in instructing the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine as evidence of darkness, an obstructed view, and a lack of evidence of any overtly careless behavior and the fact that the pedestrian abruptly appeared in front of the driver moments before the impact were found to fail to lay a foundation for the provision of that instruction to the jury. Id.

Further on in his Opinion, Justice Wecht noted that the sudden emergency doctrine “should not be understood as a ‘defense’ in the common sense, and [the Majority] finds it ill-advised to use the word ‘defense’ in sudden emergency [jury] instructions in future cases, notwithstanding that the term features in the current suggested standard jury instruction.” See Op. at 19.

Anyone wishing to review the Majority Opinion by Justice Wecht may click this LINK.

Justice Dougherty’s Dissenting Opinion may be viewed HERE.


Commentators are already pointing to the fact that, in his Dissenting Opinion, Justice Kevin Dougherty read this language as indicating that the Majority went “beyond the question [presented] to decide sua sponte the sudden emergency doctrine is no longer a viable defense in the Commonwealth.”

However, a fair reading of the Majority Opinion reveals that the Majority did not so rule; rather, in the Majority Opinion, it was held that the facts of this particular case did not support the application of the doctrine or the judge's provision of instructions to the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine. The law of the doctrine was otherwise reaffirmed in the Majority's Opinion with the indication that the application of the doctrine should be more closely scrutinized in the context of pedestrians darting out in front of vehicles at intersections given the heightened standard of car imposed on motorists in that scenario.

I send thanks for a number of attorneys for bringing this case to my attention, including Paul Oven, Esq., Scott Cooper, Esq., Kenneth Newman, Esq., and Dale Larrimore, Esq.

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