Colorado Supreme Court Abolishes Sudden Emergency Instruction

The Denver Post reported that on Tuesday the Colorado Supreme Court abolished the “accident emergency rule.”  While this is technically true, it is important for motorists to understand that the court did not change the substantive law applicable to negligence.  Rather, it abandoned a long-standing, and arguably confusing rule, concerning how juries should be instructed about the law.

The case in question is Bedor v. Johnson, __P.3d__ (Colo. no. 10SC65, Jan. 22, 2013) (pending publication).  This case involved a civil lawsuit for negligence, arising out of an auto accident near Telluride in January, 2004.  An accident reconstruction showed that Mr. Johnson lost control of his vehicle when he hit an icy patch of snow on the road, and that his vehicle then slid sideways into Mr. Bedor’s oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane.

Colorado, like most states, defines “negligence” in very broad terms.  The question is whether or not the defendant exercised a degree of care which a reasonably careful person would use under the same or similar circumstances.  The terms “reasonably careful person” and “same or similar circumstances” are intentionally broad, since there is no way that legislation could possibly anticipate every possible situation that could ever arise.  However, since at least 1953, Colorado has recognized the so-called “emergency doctrine,” which essentially recognizes that a person who, due to no fault of his own, is confronted with sudden or unexpected circumstances calling for immediate attention, is not expected to exercise the same judgment that would be required if he was acting under normal conditions.

Many cases since then have held that this rule is not an “addition” to the definition of negligence, since the definition already includes “the circumstances” as something the jury must consider. Rather, the “emergency doctrine” was considered a “reminder” and nothing more than a point of clarification on the existing law.  Nothing in the Bedor case changes that.

The issue is whether a defendant is entitled to a special jury instruction on that point.  Historically, Colorado courts have answered that question in the affirmative, despite a growing number of states that have held otherwise. (For example: Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Mexico and Montana).  In yesterday’s 5-2 decision, Colorado now joins these states.

The court’s reason for the change is that it found that the instruction tends to be more confusing than clarifying.  The danger perceived by the majority is that the jury will conclude that the trial court had already decided that a qualifying emergency actually existed (which is actually the jury’s job), and focus exclusively on the “sudden emergency” as a complete excuse for the conduct rather than upon all the circumstances.  For example, in this case, there was some evidence, which, if believed, showed that the defendant knew ahead of time of the danger of icy spots on the road, but had been speeding and may have even been intoxicated at the time he encountered this one.

While the issue of negligence does not come up muh in Driving Under the Influence cases, an accident caused as a result of a DUI could include issues of causation. The bottom line is that while some defendants may still be free to argue the doctrine to the jury, they no longer get a special jury instruction on it.

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