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What Is the "Emergency Doctrine" in a New York Car Accident Case?


Generally speaking, the less you are at fault for causing a car accident, the more the other party to the accident will likely be held liable. And that's logical.

But there is a very important exception to this rule; and in those cases, it may well be that no one is liable - or at fault (at least from a legal perspective) - for the accident. And under New York law that doctrine is called the "emergency doctrine." (This topic was alluded to in my earlier posts discussing both police liability for car accidents and emergency vehicles' liability for accidents that they cause).

So what is this "emergency doctrine," you ask?

New York's courts have summarized the rule as follows:

"[T]he emergency doctrine holds that those faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance, not of their own making, that leaves them with little or no time for reflection...may not be negligent if their actions are reasonable and prudent in the context of the emergency." Bello v. Transit Auth.of N.Y.City, 12 A.D.3d 58 [2d Dept 2004]."

An important - and often dispositive - factor in determining whether this doctrine applies is assessing if the defendant driver could or should have anticipated the conditions or events which precipitated the car accident.

For purposes of illustration, the Court applied this doctrine when a pedestrian's body was pushed into the defendant's lane by another car, which directly led to the plaintiff being hit by the defendant. Conversely, New York's courts have specifically declined to apply this doctrine where the defendant failed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle immediately before it, and as a result, collides with the vehicle, which had been fully stopped prior to imact.