Boyette v. Sprouse, Record No. 1278-22-2 (Va. Ct. App. Jan. 23, 2024)
The Court of Appeals analyzes and applies the “sudden emergency” doctrine.
Facts. Shannon Boyette was a passenger in a car driven by Evaki, his wife at the time. The Boyettes were traveling at about 45 mph on a dry road that was unilluminated by streetlights. As they approached a slight curve in the road, they saw two vehicles stopped on the other side of the road with their headlights on. One vehicle had its high beams on. As they passed the stopped vehicles, a large dog appeared suddenly and the Boyettes hit it. Evaki did not brake before or after the impact, but the Boyettes’ vehicle slowed to approximately 5 to 10 mph after the impact. Moments later, Carrie Sprouse rear-ended them.
Sprouse testified that she was traveling at approximately 40 to 45 mph before the crash, that the bright headlights from the stopped cars obscured her vision, and that she did not see any hazard or brake lights on the Boyettes’ vehicle. She testified, “I got past the bright lights and then I could see the car in front of me and slammed on the brakes.” There was conflicting evidence as to how close Sprouse was following the Boyettes. She estimated that she had been two car-lengths behind them, but also said that only four seconds passed between the time that the Boyettes hit the dog and that she hit the Boyettes.
At trial, Boyette moved to strike Sprouse’s evidence because she failed to present evidence to rebut Boyette’s prima facie case of negligence. The trial court denied the motion. It also granted a jury instruction on the “sudden emergency” doctrine over Boyette’s objection. The jury found for Sprouse, and Boyette appealed.
Issues. (1) Whether it was an abuse of discretion to grant a “sudden emergency” instruction. (2) Whether the trial court properly denied Boyette’s motion to strike.
Holdings. (1) No. There was more than a scintilla of evidence that would have permitted a jury to find that Sprouse was confronted with an emergency not created by her own negligence and that she acted as an ordinarily prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances. (2) Yes. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Sprouse, the jury could have found that Sprouse was not negligent under the “sudden emergency” doctrine.
Notes. (1) Under the “sudden emergency” doctrine, “when a defendant, without prior negligence on his part, is confronted with a sudden emergency and acts as an ordinarily prudent person would have done under the same or similar circumstances, he is not guilty of negligence.” The emergency must be “sudden, unexpected and unforeseen” and “call for immediate action without giving time for the deliberate exercise of judgment.” Though application of the “sudden emergency” should be determined by the fact-finder, it is rarely appropriate to grant the instruction, and courts “must use particular care when determining whether to grant a sudden emergency instructions because it has the tendency to afford a jury an easy way of avoiding instead of deciding the issue made by the evidence in the case.” Here, however, the combination of the blinding lights and the rapid slowing of the Boyettes’ vehicle with no hazard or brake lights created a sudden emergency. Notably, a car’s sudden stop alone does not constitute a “sudden emergency.”
(2) A defendant may rely on the “sudden emergency” doctrine to rebut the plaintiff’s prima facie case of negligence by offering a “reasonable explanation” showing that what happened was not related to her negligence. It is not an affirmative defense, however, so the plaintiff still bears the burden of proving that his injuries were caused by the defendant’s negligence. For the same reasons that it was proper to grant the “sudden emergency” doctrine, it was also proper to deny Boyette’s motion to strike Sprouse’s evidence.