After an auto accident, drivers, passengers, and police will often spend time trying to figure out who caused the crash. This can be used to issue criminal charges and determine fault for third party lawsuits. But a lot can change when medical emergencies cause personal injury accidents.
The Michigan No-Fault Act controls who can sue, or get sued, after an auto accident. The name may suggest that who is to blame is never an issue. But in serious personal injury cases, who caused the accident is often the difference between complete compensation and the more limited coverage offered by auto insurance.
Michigan law breaks auto accident litigation into two parts: “first party” cases against the injured motorist’s insurance company and “third party” negligence lawsuits against the at-fault driver. Fault generally doesn’t matter in a first party case – an insurance company is required to pay benefits for medical expenses, lost wages, and replacement services regardless of who caused the accident. But fault plays a much bigger role for seriously injured motorists to recover a broader range of damages, including pain and suffering and disability. In those cases, the cause of the accident can reduce, and sometimes even eliminate a person’s claim for non-economic damages. Sometimes, a person can even cause an accident without being negligent or “at fault”.
A sudden medical emergency can make it impossible to prevent a serious injury accident. When a driver suddenly loses consciousness or the ability to control his or her vehicle, the resulting injury may not be a matter of fault.
A recent unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Dyson v City of Detroit provides a good example. On June 24, 2014, Jojuan Dyson was seriously injured when the Detroit city bus he was driving crossed the center line into oncoming traffic, crashed through a construction barricade, hit a curb, and then side-swiped a building, all without braking. Two doctors confirmed that the bus driver, Gregory Cotton had experienced a sudden cardiac event – a heart attack – while driving and lost consciousness. An autopsy report indicated he died as a result of the accident.
The question for the court was whether Cotton’s health condition created a “sudden emergency” to excuse the cause of the bus accident. The “sudden-emergency doctrine” applies whenever a collision happens as the result of “a sudden emergency not of the defendants’ own making”. Medical emergencies like loss of consciousness often fall into this category. But to excuse fault, a sudden emergency must be “totally unexpected.” If the driver knew, or should have known, that a medical condition made driving unsafe, he or she can still be considered at fault for the accident.
For example, an epileptic seizure can cause a loss of control or consciousness that can come on suddenly and interfere with a person’s ability to drive. If a person suffers an epileptic seizure while driving, it may be considered a sudden emergency. But if the person had been previously diagnosed with a seizure condition and knew that he or she could lose consciousness, the choice to drive anyway can be considered negligent.
The Court of Appeals said there was no evidence that the bus driver had that kind of warning. While Cotton’s medical records revealed significant health issues, including cardiovascular disease and hypertension, there was no evidence that he had ever lost consciousness before. Because of this, the court said that Cotton had suffered a sudden emergency and was not at fault for the crash.
A sudden medical emergency can also complicate a claim for no-fault benefits. The auto insurance companies are required to pay benefits for injuries resulting from the use of a motor vehicle. However, they are not required to pay for the treatment of preexisting conditions, unless they are aggravated by the accident. If a person filing a claim has a medical episode that causes the crash, the insurance provider will often deny coverage for that portion of the claim connected to the episode itself. This distinction can often become highly technical, and can require medical experts to ensure that all the accident-related expenses are covered.
Medical emergencies often create serious personal injury accidents and complicated legal situations. If there is any question that a health condition caused your injuries, be certain to contact an experienced personal injury attorney early to find out how that sudden emergency could affect your case.
At Sachs Waldman, we have extensive experience helping auto accident victims recover damages from no-fault insurance providers and at-fault drivers. We know how unusual circumstances can affect your claims and can provide you clear legal advice. Contact our Detroit personal injury law office at 1-800-638-6722.