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Indiana Upholds Defense Based on a Sudden Medical Emergency

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By Katherine Haire

January 9, 2019

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently handed down a decision upholding an award of summary judgment to the estate of a deceased driver who caused a motor vehicle accident following a sudden medical emergency.  In Denson v. The Estate of Dillard and Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Company, No. 18ACT-1112, six weeks after suffering a heart attack, Delmer Dillard (the “driver”) had another heart attack and lost consciousness while driving a vehicle.  He drove off the road and struck a home.  He died, and his passenger was severely injured in the accident (incurring more than $400,000 in medical expenses).  The passenger subsequently sued the driver’s estate.  The estate moved for summary judgment on the basis that the driver’s sudden loss of consciousness was a medical emergency.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the driver’s estate, and the passenger appealed. 

On appeal, the Court found the driver did not breach his duty to act as a reasonable person, such that the Estate was not liable for negligence.  Summary judgment is rarely decided on whether an individual has breached his duty of care because it is often a fact-sensitive inquiry that should be left to a jury.  In this case, however, the Court determined that the relevant facts were undisputed and led to only one conclusion, that the driver did not cause the accident by acting unreasonably.

In reaching its decision, the Court declined to specifically adopt a “sudden medical emergency” defense.  Rather, the Court relied on standard negligence principles and considered whether the driver conformed his conduct to that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances.  The facts demonstrated that the driver suddenly suffered a heart attack and simultaneously lost consciousness, causing him to lose control of his vehicle and crash.  Finding as a matter of law that the driver could not have been found to have acted unreasonably after he suffered the heart attack and was rendered unconscious, the Court considered whether the driver acted unreasonably in deciding to drive his vehicle in the first place.  This is because in order to be charged with negligence, an actor must have knowledge or notice that his conduct involved danger to another.

The driver’s estate presented evidence that despite suffering a heart attack approximately six weeks before the subsequent fatal attack and accident, the driver had attended several follow-up cardiology appointments and was found to be doing well—with no chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or other observable symptoms.  His physicians had placed no restrictions on his driving or other activities.  In turn, the passenger presented evidence that the driver was prescribed medication for his heart and knew that he suffered from coronary artery disease.  The passenger also elicited expert medical testimony providing that the driver’s medical history indicated he was at future risk for cardiac events.

The Court found that the passenger presented insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the driver knew or had reason to believe that he was at imminent risk for a heart attack and should not have been driving.  Rather, the Court determined that the evidence established that the driver’s sudden physical incapacity was not reasonably foreseeable, and the driver did not act unreasonably in deciding to drive on the date of the accident.  As a result, the driver’s estate was entitled to summary judgment.

The Court ruled as it did based on the very narrow and specific facts presented in this case.  Although the Court declined to specifically adopt a defense doctrine of “sudden medical emergency,” it is nevertheless a defense/argument that should be raised when a medical condition creates a dangerous situation for others—as in a motor vehicle accident—because this case provides a basis to guard against liability where an actor reasonably lacked knowledge that his conduct could cause harm.

If you wish a full copy of this opinion, or have any other questions with respect to motor vehicle accident liability, or general liability, call any one of our General Liability/Surplus Risks Practice Group

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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