Sudden Emergency Defense: Now More Dispositive

On August 28, 2015, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a Writ Application in Leandro Carias v. Vernon A. Loren, et al. This denial signifies that the “sudden emergency” defense may be properly applied at the summary judgment level. The defense in the Carias litigation was handled by Keogh Cox attorneys Gracella Gail Simmons and Collin J. LeBlanc.

In Carias, the defendant operated his 18-wheeler traveling eastbound over the Mississippi River Bridge when, according to his testimony, a “phantom driver” abruptly entered into his lane of travel and forcefully applied their brakes.  In the sliver of time allowed, the defendant sought to quickly determine if he could safely move from his lane of travel. Incorrectly, he believed that there was sufficient space in the lane to his right and impacted a truck in that lane. In turn, that vehicle rear-ended the plaintiff.

A Motion for Summary Judgment was filed and won based upon the sudden emergency defense, which provides that one is not negligent when they fail to take reasonable measures to avoid an accident when they were presented with: 1) a sudden emergency; 2) which was not of their making; and, 3) which did not allow sufficient time for deliberation. In opposition to the Motion, the plaintiff cited testimony that the defendant was “following too closely,” and contended that the defendant was therefore at fault and unable to seek the protections of the defense. In response, it was argued that whether the defendant driver allowed sufficient space between his vehicle and the vehicle to the front was non-material when it was the actions of the phantom driver which exclusively created the sudden emergency.

Plaintiff appealed the grant of summary judgment to the Louisiana First Circuit. Prior to Carias, the Louisiana First Circuit had questioned whether the sudden emergency defense could ever be used at the dispositive motion stage. On this subject, the Louisiana First Circuit stated as follows in Manno v. Gutierrez, 05-0476 (La. App. 1st Cir. 3/29/06); 934 So. 2d 112, 117-118: “while we cannot say that it would never be possible to apply the doctrine on a motion for summary judgment, our research has disclosed no cases from this court that have so applied it, and by the nature of the sudden emergency doctrine, it would seem rarely appropriate on a motion for summary judgment.” Nevertheless, the First Circuit upheld the Carias  summary judgment finding that, unlike earlier cases, there was no conflicting testimony regarding the defendant’s lack of opportunity to assess the situation or take other evasive actions.

In the Writ Application to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff cited to a “split in the Circuits” concerning whether the sudden emergency defense may be used at the summary judgment stage.  In response, it was argued that the decades of jurisprudence following the Louisiana Supreme Court’s establishment of the sudden emergency defense in Hickman v. Southern Pacific Trans. Co., 262 La. 102, 113-114, 262 So.2d 385, 389 (1972) demonstrate that the lower courts have not struggled with this doctrine and that nothing in Hickman nor the Summary Judgment Article prevent a consideration of the sudden emergency defense through motion practice.

As a practical matter, summary judgment may still be difficult to obtain in the context of the sudden emergency defense because of the highly factual context into which the defense is often sought for application. Nevertheless, after Carias, it appears likely that there is no legal prohibition to the use of the doctrine in support of a dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment

Written by:

Gracella Gail Simmons and Collin J. LeBlanc



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