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How Can a Sudden Medical Emergency Impact Utah Car Accident Claims?

If an auto accident results from an unforeseen medical issue; resulting in a loss of consciousness or loss of vehicular control; the at-fault party can claim a sudden medical emergency as a defense. This defense will protect the at-fault driver from any personal liability associated with accident damages.

Most states recognize a sudden medical emergency as a legitimate defense; as drivers can’t have responsibility for events outside of their control. However, for this defense to apply, the at-fault party must prove:

  • They suddenly lost consciousness prior to the accident
  • This loss of consciousness caused the auto accident
  • The loss of consciousness resulted from an unforeseeable medical emergency

However, if the at-fault driver experienced any symptoms indicating a potential medical emergency; ignoring these symptoms will nullify this defense. Common sense dictates the driver should have pulled off the road instead of risking the lives of other drivers.

How Family and Personal Medical History Can Limit This Defense

The at-fault driver’s personal and family medical history may impede the application of this defense. For example, a driver with a family history of heart problems cannot use this defense if a sudden heart attack occurs while driving. 

Furthermore, if your doctor determines that you are not safe to drive, you must receive their approval to resume driving. If you fail to follow their instructions, you will be unable to use this defense if an accident occurs.

Utah Statutory Law v.s. Utah Common Law

Under Utah Code 31A-22-303(1)(a)(v) the insurance company of the at-fault driver must “cover damages or injur[ies] resulting from a covered driver of a motor vehicle who is stricken by an unforeseeable paralysis, seizure, or other unconscious condition and who is not reasonably aware [that a medical emergency is about to occur] to the extent that a person of ordinary prudence would not attempt to continue driving”.

Meaning that if a driver was unaware of the potential medical emergency, their insurance company must still compensate the injured party for damages. This code also stipulates that “the driver’s liability under Subsection (1)(a)(v) is limited to the[ir] insurance coverage”. Meaning, the injured party can only receive compensation from the at-fault’s insurance company up to the policy limit. 

However, Utah common law dictates that a driver who has suffered a sudden incapacity (like a heart attack, stroke, unconsciousness, etc) cannot be held liable for any damages if the sudden medical emergency was not foreseeable; preventing the driver from acting in a preventative manner.

As you can see, Utah statutory law and Utah common law differ greatly. Where Utah statute requires the at-fault driver’s insurance to provide compensation for the injured parties; Utah common law denies liability on behalf of the at-fault driver. As these two laws conflict, the Utah Supreme Court along with the United States District Court issued a decision in Lancer insurance co. v. Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines Inc., Janna Crane, Elizabeth Hutchison, Mette Seppi, and Tiffany Thayne.

Case Overview

In 2009 a bus driver by the name of Debra Jarvis lost consciousness while transporting a group of students back to Utah from Idaho. As a result, the bus careened into a ravine, causing it to roll onto its side. Fortunately, no fatalities occurred, however, a few students sustained injuries.

When the plaintiffs presented their case before a trial court, the court ruled in favor of the defendant (Debra Jarvis), citing Utah common law; stating that neither Jarvis nor her insurance company held any liability for the accident. Later the insurance company (Lancer Insurance Co) filed a motion with the United States District Court seeking a declaration confirming the interpretation made by the trial court; relieving them of liability for the accident. The United States District Court conferred with the Utah Supreme Court in order to reach a determination.

The United States District Court and Utah Supreme Court Determinations

Together, the United States District Court and the Utah Supreme Court found that Utah’s statutory law overrules common law regarding sudden medical emergencies to an extent; stating “We interpret the statute to mean what it says. A driver (and by extension her insurer) is subject to liability only up to the amount of the insurance coverage available under an applicable policy”.

This means that in the state of Utah, a driver who suffers a sudden medical emergency will still be held liable for damages, but only up to the limit specified in their insurance policy. Furthermore, in this situation, you cannot pursue a personal injury lawsuit against the driver. 

They also determined that injury victims have an accident claim for strict liability meaning that they only have access to liability coverage on Jarvis’s policy. Additionally, with strict liability, there is not a determination of fault as the accident occurred under a medical emergency. In Jarvis’s case, an investigation to determine fault did not occur. The court determined Jarvis’s insurance was liable for damages due to her sudden loss of consciousness.  However, accidents that do not pertain to an unforeseeable medical emergency are still subjected to a determination of fault prior to the pursuit of compensation.

Were you or someone you know involved in a recent auto accident? Call Auto Accident Care Network now at 801-683-1948 to connect with a live care advocate. Our team at AACN can connect you to trusted attorneys and doctors to schedule a free legal consultation, a free thirty-minute massage, and a no-cost medical exam!

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