What Is Kentucky's Sudden Emergency Doctrine?

Whose fault is an accident? This largely depends on the situation. For example, let's pretend a man named Tony is driving through a neighborhood. He is driving at the speed limit, has his seat belt fastened and is aware of his surroundings. Then, all of the sudden, the car in front of Tony slams on their brakes to avoid hitting a ball that bounced into the road. Tony immediately slams on his brakes but could not stop in time. He hits the back of the car he was following.

You may be thinking that Tony didn’t have a chance. He did everything he could to avoid the accident. If the car hadn’t stopped in front of Tony, the accident would never have happened. This car accident was not Tony’s fault. The fact is, it was Tony's fault, and this scenario is an excellent example of a sudden emergency.

Related: Drivers, Be Aware of Staged Car Accidents in Kentucky

Sudden emergency doctrine
In Kentucky, you are required to have your car under control at all times. You should be able to avoid the car in front of you. There are very few scenarios in a rear end accident that it would be the fault of the car that was rear ended. Kentucky does have a “sudden emergency” doctrine. This is considered a defense against a negligent act, such as slamming into the back of another car. Kentucky courts have defined a “sudden emergency” as a situation where a person is suddenly confronted by an emergency situation that allows no time for deliberation. There must be a choice made between alternative courses of action. You must voluntarily choose one over the other.

What does this mean for Tony?
This sounds like what happened to Tony. However, Kentucky courts have addressed this issue in Robinson v. Lansford, Ky. App., 222 S.W.3d 242 (2006). In this case, a car, the plaintiff, stopped suddenly in front of the defendant. The defendant had stopped because he crashed into a car in front. This is called a chain reaction collision. The Court said this was a “sudden occurrence” and not a “sudden emergency.” The Court reasoned that the defendant took no action as a result of the sudden encounter, such as swerving into the other lane of traffic. He was simply unable to avoid the collision.

Related: Faking Injuries in Car Accidents

The moral of the story is, under Kentucky law, if you take no action as a result of a sudden encounter there is no “sudden emergency.” That means the accident is your fault. The bottom line is you should give yourself enough space between you and the car in front of you to stop. Expect the unexpected or you might end up in an accident.  

Michael Schafer
The Personal Injury Attorney for Louisville and Kentucky
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