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Lyons v. Midnight Sun Transp. Servs

    Brief Fact Summary. Esther Hunter-Lyons (Hunter-Lyons) was killed in a collision with a truck owned by Midnight Sun Transportation Services Incorporated (Defendant). The jury was given instructions concerning the sudden emergency doctrine and found that while the driver of the truck was negligent. His negligence was not the legal cause of the accident. Hunter-Lyons appealed, asserting that the instruction was improper.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The sudden emergency doctrine is a rule of law which states that a person confronted with a sudden and unexpected peril, not resulting from that person’s own negligence, is not expected to exercise the same judgment and prudence the law requires of a person in calmer and more deliberate moments. The person confronted with the imminent peril must, however, act as a reasonable person would under the same conditions.

    Facts. Hunter-Lyons was killed when her Volkswagen van was struck broadside by a truck driven by David Jette (Jette) and owned by Defendant. When the accident occurred, Jette was driving south in the right-hand lane of a thoroughfare in Anchorage, Alaska. Hunter-Lyons pulled out of a parking lot in front of him. Jette braked and steered to the left, but Hunter-Lyons continued to pull out further into the traffic lane. Jette’s truck collided with Hunter-Lyons’s vehicle. David Lyons, the deceased’s husband, (Plaintiff) filed suit, asserting that Jette had been speeding and driving negligently.

    Issue. Was the jury instruction concerning the sudden emergency doctrine improper?

    Held. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision that Jette was not at fault in the accident, but that the primary cause was the decedent pulling out in front of Jette. The use of the sudden emergency instruction was harmless error.

    Discussion. The sudden emergency doctrine, which arises in Lyons, has at times caused confusion with respect to the degree of care a party may owe another. The idea is, if a person, through no fault of his or her own, is faced with a sudden emergency, they are not to be held to the same correctness of judgment and action as if he had time and opportunity to fully consider the situation.
    * The individual is, however, expected to exercise that care which a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances. As the court explains, “The sudden emergency doctrine arose as a method of ameliorating the, sometimes harsh, ‘all or nothing’ rule in contributory negligence systems.
    * Or, as The American Law Institute articulates the doctrine: “In determining whether conduct is negligent toward another, the fact that the actor is confronted with a sudden emergency which requires rapid decision is a factor in determining the reasonable character of his choice of action.”
    * The modern trend, as is reflected in Lyons, is to move away from instructing juries on the “sudden emergency doctrine” because, rather than explaining to the jury that emergency circumstances are a factor in determining the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, the instruction has a “tendency to elevate its principles above what is required to be proven in a negligence action.”


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