Sudden medical emergency defense in Ohio means that that a driver who unexpectedly loses consciousness and causes an accident as the result of a sudden and unforeseeable medical emergency does not act negligently, and thus cannot be held liable for damages arising from the accident. So, what does that really mean in practice?
Sudden medical emergency defense in Ohio all started with a 1956 case, Lehman v. Haynam.
On January 4, 1956, Lehman was driving west on US Route 30 in Stark County, Ohio, while at the same time, Haynam was driving east. While they were passing each other, Haynam crossed the centerline of the highway and crashed into Lehman’s car, injuring Lehman.
Haynam claimed that his car crossed the center line because he lost consciousness due to an unforeseeable cause. The burden of proof rested on Haynam, the driver, to prove that he crossed the line because he became unconscious, so it was impossible to control the car, and that he did not anticipate the unconsciousness. Haynam had a physician that testified supporting his claim of unforeseeable unconsciousness verifying the burden of proof on his part. Loss of consciousness was a full defense to this negligence.
The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that if Haynam had been conscious up to the point of the collision, he would have been guilty. However, when the driver of an automobile is suddenly stricken by a period of unconsciousness which he has no reason to anticipate and which renders it impossible for him to control the car he is driving, he is not chargeable with negligence. The sudden emergency doctrine was uniformly put in place in Ohio, so that not even a man that killed two others while being unconscious at the wheel could be held liable.
Decades later in 2003, another similar case came, Roman v. Estate of Gobbo, that tried to overrule Lehman. However, it was unsuccessful, and Lehman was reaffirmed.
In 1999, Nino Gobbo was driving a car in Cleveland. He suddenly hit another car, sped up, swerved, returned to the road, swerved again, and ran over a road sign. He came back to the road only to be driving left of the center and crashed into at least two cars coming from the opposite direction. Both Nino and his wife, Frances, who was in the car, were killed by the collision. Two others were killed as a result of the crash, with several other people injured.
Two of the injured sued the estate of Nino Gobbo. Gobbo’s estate was able to use the sudden medical emergency as a complete defense, as Gobbo had suffered from a heart attack just before the incident.
During the trial, it was brought up that Gobbo had a history of issues of narrowing arteries, which made it hard for him to walk. A doctor testified saying that a person that would have narrowing arteries around the heart would be likely to also have narrowing arteries in the leg. However, the doctor also testified that Gobbo should not have been restricted in his driving even though he suffered from a sudden cardiac death which could not have been foreseen. It was also noted in the trial that Gobbo had bypass surgery in 1979 and had visited physicians several times due to chest pain in the 80s and 90s. The injured parties argued that because Gobbo knew about his medical condition, he should be held liable. This was shot down as it would set a precedent for all drivers with any serious medical conditions to have restrictions.
What constitutes a sudden medical emergency can range from having a seizure to a stroke, to mental delusions, or to a bad reaction from medication.
While this case was sided with the Estate of Gobbo, two of the judges commented that they would like to see compensation for damages, whether through the legislature or through an insurance policy. One of the judges said that a better rule would be to have the victims able to sue for damages from the person whose sudden medical emergency ended in a violation of a law and/or their resulting injuries or death.
There has also been some discussion on the foreseeability factor. Part of using the sudden medical emergency defense in Ohio is that the emergency is unforeseen. However, someone with a certain type of medical history like someone with heart problems or someone that has a history of seizures, would not necessarily be able to prove unforeseeability in the same way as someone who is generally without those issues.
Like in the Gobbo case, since Gobbo wasn’t liable for damages, due to the sudden medical emergency defense, the injured were not able to recover for their medical expenses or their vehicles. One argument is that the injured did not choose a policy that would cover them in this case.
However, Ohio is an At-Fault state, which means that someone must be at fault in order to pay for damages. Because of the medical emergency defense doctrine in Ohio, someone may be out of luck when trying to get their car fixed or medical bills payed for, when the accident happened through no fault of their own, but due to an unforeseen medical emergency of another driver. This may be different in a no-fault state where insurance will cover accident costs regardless of who caused it.
While several states have some form of sudden medical emergency defense, there are several states that do not. For example, in New Mexico, they no longer use the sudden medical emergency defense because the New Mexico Supreme Court said that it could confuse the jury. They abolished the defense in Colorado for a similar reason. The court said that the defense was misleading to the jury and had minimal value. Other states, like Alaska or Utah, have similar reasons why they abolished the sudden medical emergency defense. Some states have altered their stance on the doctrine to allow for a more equitable outcome of cases for victims that may not be awarded damages.
Like any other car accident, make sure that you get the best help you can by contacting a personal injury lawyer. We, at Kruger & Hodges, are here to help you.