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Is a driver responsible when a “sudden medical emergency” causes a car crash?

Recently, a driver who reportedly experienced a “sudden medical emergency” jumped the curb and hit 2 people on the sidewalk of the Burnside Bridge in Portland. One of the pedestrians was fatally injured.

In May, a Vancouver man died after suffering from a medical emergency and crashing on I-205.

In April, a 61-year-old semi-truck driver who “may have suffered a medical emergency”, veered off the road and caused a rollover crash.

Last year, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of an 11-year-old Aloha girl who was hit and killed by a Toyota when a diabetic driver blacked out behind the wheel.

A medical emergency behind the wheel

It’s statistically rare. An NHTSA study estimated only 1.3% of motor vehicle crashes are caused by a driver’s medical emergency. Even though it’s rare, it seems it is in the news all the time.

This is called a  “sudden medical emergency defense.” A driver of an automobile causes a crash and blames it on a medical event. Then, the insurance company claims they don’t have to pay damages, because their driver isn’t responsible for the accident.

Negligent driver and medical conditions

The law sets a standard for reasonable behavior: what would the average careful, practical person do in the same circumstances?

A person can be considered “negligent” – and responsible for the damages in a personal injury lawsuit – if their actions don’t meet that standard.

  • If the driver didn’t treat a medical condition, or ignored warning signs of a health crisis – dizziness, lightheadedness, shooting pains – that driver is probably negligent. Even if the medical emergency that caused the crash (like blacking out due to low blood sugar) wasn’t intentional, it was likely preventable.
  • If the driver is very suddenly incapacitated by a medical emergency – a heart attack or stroke – and if there was no history, and no warning, it is possible that he or she may not be found negligent. Lawyers who work for insurance companies use this as a defense; but it is just a strategy to avoid paying on insurance claims.

There are serious risks associated with driving a car for people who have certain medical conditions. An epileptic may have a seizure, a diabetic may have a sudden drop in blood sugar: these events can be predictable, and often are preventable.

Drivers have a duty to assess their health before getting behind the wheel of a car, and potentially endangering other people. Don’t let them deny responsibility for their own actions. When the defense is raised of a sudden medical emergency, thorough investigation should be done by police and/or medical doctors.

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