Another way of asking this question is what is the legal excuse doctrine? That’s the way lawyers would frame the question. As an example let’s say you are driving and have a heart attack making you lose consciousness, you pass out and run into the back of the car in front of you? BOOM!!! What then? Are you at fault? Read this case and you’ll know the answer. Hagenow vs Schmidt, 30140 Legal Excuse Doctrine

A violation of a statutory duty—such as Schmidt’s failure to stop at the red light—constitutes negligence per se, absent a legal excuse. See id. (“A violation of a statutory duty constitutes negligence per se, absent a legal excuse.”).

The legal excuse doctrine allows a person to avoid the consequences of a particular act or type of conduct by showing justification for acts that otherwise would be considered negligent. There are four categories of legal excuse:

(1) anything that would make it impossible to comply with the statute or ordinance;

(2) anything over which the driver has no control which places the driver’s motor vehicle in a position contrary to the provisions of the statute or ordinance;

(3) where the driver of the motor vehicle is confronted by an emergency not of the driver’s own making, and by reason of such an emergency, the driver fails to obey the statute; and

(4) where a statute specifically provides an excuse or exception.

And this passage from the Hagenow decision is instructive:

The sudden emergency doctrine excuses a defendant’s failure to obey statutory law when confronted with an emergency not of the defendant’s own making. See Weiss v. Bal, 501 N.W.2d 478, 480 (Iowa 1993). Sudden emergency has been defined as “(1) an unforeseen combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action; (2) a perplexing contingency or complication of circumstances; (3) a sudden or unexpected occasion for action, exigency, pressing necessity.” Bangs v. Keifer, 174 N.W.2d 372, 374 (Iowa 1970) (emphasis added). This is consistent with the common understanding of an emergency. See American Heritage College Dictionary 458 (4th ed. 2004) (defining “emergency” as “[a] serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action”). In Foster v. Ankrum, 636 N.W.2d 104, 106 (Iowa 2001), the court noted that a sudden emergency requires an “instantaneous response,” or “something fairly close.” (Emphasis added.)

The sudden emergency doctrine has been criticized by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The instruction is a correct statement of the law, though we note that our supreme court has expressed criticism of the doctrine of sudden emergency. See Foster v. Ankrum, 636 N.W.2d 104, 107 (Iowa 2001); Weiss v. Bal, 501 N.W.2d 478, 480 (Iowa 1993).  

But time is of the essence when a person, in this case a driver, to act and fails to act.

As with the requirement that the actor had sufficient time to make a decisional act in response to the peril, this requirement appears to be grounded in the assumption that the sudden emergency doctrine is intended to relieve an actor of liability where he has acted in response to a perceived peril and has made a choice which in hindsight may be regarded as unwise or ill-considered, but which was not unreasonable or imprudent under the stress of surrounding circumstances. Where the actor has not made a decisional act in response to peril, either because he was unaware of the peril, or where he perceived the peril but did not have time to react to it, the doctrine logically has no application.

In some courts, these requirements of awareness of the peril and time to react to it are stated somewhat differently. It is said to be a requirement that before the sudden emergency rule may be invoked in a negligence action, at least in motor vehicle cases, the negligence which is charged must concern management and control. The rationale is that the emergency instruction is designed to relieve an actor who is confronted with an emergency from being labeled negligent in connection with his manner of management and control. If the actor was never confronted with an emergency decision because he never recognized that an emergency existed, no choice was made, and he cannot invoke the doctrine because the charge of negligence does not go to his management and control of a situation.

8 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 399 § 13 (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted).

In this case the jury verdict was overturned and the lower court ruling reversed. The defendants failed to prove through expert testimony when the alleged medical condition occurred and how that affected the driver’s vision. This is in my view the correct ruling; the trial judge should not have instructed the jury on a legal excuse.

Steve Lombardi
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Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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