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Personal Injuries and the Imminent Peril Doctrine

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Invariably, personal injuries can result from a wide variety of circumstances, such as truck accidents (i.e., big-rig or 18-wheeler accidents), car and auto accidents, motorcycle accidents, slip and fall accidents, trip and fall accidents, and other premises liability accidents. Each of these types of accidents serve as an umbrella of sorts, and under each is found the many forms of “how” such accidents occurred. Whether the act was accidental (otherwise considered to have resullted from negligence), or was the result of a statute’s violation (see Negligence Per Se), the at-fault party has various defenses he/she can assert to avoid liability for the victim’s injuries. One such defense is found within the imminent peril doctrine or the doctrine of immediate emergency. In a nutshell, this doctrine essentially allows the party liable for the personal injuries of the victim to escape or otherwise minimize liability for an injury-accident by changing the normal standard of care expected of that person in a non-emergency scenario. Following a car, truck, motorcycle accident or other personal injury occurrence, the at-fault party can argue that because of some pre-existing emergency (that was actually real or not), their otherwise negligent acts in causing the accident are excused  because under the emergency conditions, their act should not be considered negligent, even if, in hindsight, they could have acted in a completely different manner and in so doing, would have avoided the underlying injury accident altogether. A prime example of this is where an individual is speeding in his car away from some sort of emergency situation (e.g., flood waters, volcano lava, a crazy shooter, etc.) and collides with another car, injuring the other car’s occupant. Normally, the first driver would be liable for the car accident and personal injuries of the victim for violating CVC 22350 (see Top 4 Ca Vehicle Code Violations Resulting in Injury Accidents). However, because the first driver was not necessarily expected to drive as a normal and cautious person under the emergency circumstances, the law will not impose liability on him. This rule is found in California Jury Instructions 452: Sudden Emergency. The text of the instruction is as follows: [Name of plaintiff/defendant] claims that [he/she] was not negligent because [he/she] acted with reasonable care  in an emergency situation. [Name of plaintiff/defendant] was not negligent if [he/she] proves all of the following:

1. That there was a sudden and unexpected emergency situation in which someone was in actual or apparent danger of immediate injury;

2. That [name of plaintiff/defendant] did not cause the emergency; and

3. That [name of plaintiff/defendant] acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted in similar circumstances, even if it appears later that a different course of action would have been safer.

There are countless other scenarios where the immediate peril doctrine can be applied. Pay close attention to the fact that the emergency itself does not have to be real or exist at all. It simply must have been reasonable to believe the emergency was real. Likewise, if looking back on the actions of the injury-causing party one identifies an alternate course of action that he/she could have taken which would have avoided injury, it is of no consequence and the defense still applies. According to the jury instruction, “The exigent nature of the circumstances effectively lowers the standard of care: ‘The test is whether the actor took one of the courses of action which a standard man in that emergency might have taken, and  such a course is not negligent even though it led to an injury which might have been prevented by adopting an alternative curse of action.” (Schultz v. Mathias).  If you have been involved in a personal injury accident and need assistance, contact our personal injury attorney today for a free consultation.

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