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March 2013 Sudden Medical Emergency Update

The Pennsylvania Superior Court finds that while there is a viable “sudden medical emergency defense” in Pennsylvania, it is a true affirmative defense and must be pled as such and the defendant must meet their burden of proof before the plaintiff even has to rebut the defense.

In the case of Shiner v. Ralston, 2013 Pa Super 33, the plaintiff was injured when a vehicle driven by the defendant crossed over a median into oncoming traffic and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle.  Witnesses to the crash stated that the defendant made no attempts to avoid the collision and an autopsy report concluded the defendant (who died in the crash) had a heart attack which rendered him unconscious while he was driving.

Based on this evidence and supported by expert reports, the defense moved for summary judgment arguing that the collision was the result of a sudden and unforeseeable medical emergency and therefore, as a matter of law, the defendant could not found liable.  The trial court granted the motion and an appeal followed.

On appeal, the Superior Court clarified that the court below had reviewed the motion in the context of the “sudden emergency doctrine” which is a firmly established area of Pennsylvania jurisprudence but, that this case was not one that implicated the “sudden emergency doctrine” but rather was one that the involved a “sudden medical emergency defense”.  The Court acknowledged that this “sudden medical emergency defense” had not been officially recognized by any appellate level court in Pennsylvania but they pointed out that it had been considered as a potential legal defense in many cases.  In essence, the Court fully adopted the “sudden medical emergency defense” by its’ decision.

However, in adopting this defense, the Court clarified that it was an affirmative defense meaning that the defendant must have pled it as such in a New Matter or the defense would have been waived.  In the case at bar, it was not pled as such and was therefore deemed to have been waived.  The Court did not stop there in their analysis however and went on to state that since this doctrine is an affirmative defense it is the defendant’s burden to prove it and that the court below had improperly shifted the burden to the plaintiff to disprove the defense.  The Court then reviewed the proofs submitted on the motion and held that the defendant did not meet the initial burden so there was no shifting of the burden to rebut the defense to the plaintiff and, even if there was a burden shifting, the plaintiff had presented issues of fact on the point sufficient to defeat summary judgment.

Now that there is some clarity of the procedural aspects of the “sudden medical emergency defense” the issues for practitioners moving forward will be to determine what constitutes  “suddenness” and more so tackling how one proves that the medical emergency was unforeseeable as that is the crux of the affirmative defense. To read the full opinion please click here.