How Emergency Doctrine Works

The emergency doctrine is generally applicable in critical situations that demand quick action, such as a car crash, a fire, or a collapsing building. This doctrine excuses the individual from the usual danger of legal recrimination. The emergency doctrine is applicable in circumstances when a person acted in good faith during an imminent disaster that may not have come to pass.

According to information from the Washington State Supreme Court Committee on Jury, an ordinarily careful person is not negligent when choosing an immediate action in an emergency to avoid injury—even though the decision may not be the wisest.

Real-Word Example of Emergency Doctrine

In the 1970s, a school bus and a motorcyclist collided on a curvy, hilly road in the US. The latter filed a personal injury lawsuit, blaming the bus driver for his injuries. When the case trial ended, the motorcyclist lost; he, however, appealed to a higher court.

The higher court indicated that the sudden emergency doctrine might apply. It said that the jury should have taken into account that the school bus might have illegally crossed over into the oncoming lane; this could have caused the motorcyclist to swerve, crashing into the bus. Hence, the court argued, the motorcyclist’s action was attributable to a sudden emergency.

Similarly, in 2009, the Washington State Supreme Court applied the sudden emergency doctrine to a bizarre crash involving a motorcycle and a deer. The passenger, who got injured in the accident, sued the motorcyclist for damages. The court determined that since the deer suddenly crossed over into the road, there was no way the motorcyclist could avoid hitting it. In the court’s opinion, this was a classic example of a situation where the sudden emergency doctrine applied; the evidence was sufficient to admit it.

History of Emergency Doctrine

The US emergency doctrine application essentially originates from English law. For instance, in the Jones vs. Boyce case of 1816, an English court ruled that the claimant “reasonably” jumped out of a carriage that appeared like it was on the verge of crashing. It ruled that, although the carriage did not crash, the claimant rightly sued for damage.

In Leo vs. Dunham (1953), the record states that a person in a perilous situation due to actual or perceived imminent danger without negligence is not expected or required to use the same prudence or judgment required in calmer, more deliberate moments.

According to Sadoian vs. Modesto Refrigerating Co. (1958), the record adds that this doctrine applies strictly in situations where the physical danger is unexpected and comes so suddenly that it deprives the injured party of his powers of reasonable judgment.

Emergency Doctrine vs. Rescue Doctrine

A clear distinction exists between the emergency doctrine and the rescue doctrine. The rescue doctrine demands that the person who places another in peril or in a situation that seems to be imminently dangerous is obligated to provide reasonable care to the person attempting to rescue the ‘victim’ from peril or seeming peril.

Thus in the Harris v. Oaks Shopping Center case of 1999, the Court of Appeal sent back the case to the lower court for a retrial, urging it to invoke the rescue doctrine (rather than the emergency doctrine) in dispensing justice. Harris, the mall employee, earlier had lost the case seeking compensation for back injuries he had suffered while trying to push a woman and her child out of harm’s way when he believed a sand sculpture in the mall was about to collapse on the customers. However, the sculpture did not collapse.