What Are the Conditions for Applying for the Sudden Medical Emergency Doctrine?

Woman holding her head with pain in front of steering wheel

Most car accidents probably stem from negligence, which is the failure to use appropriate care under the circumstances. When a driver is careless, they are legally obligated to pay compensation to the victims they injured. That is only fair. After all, a negligent driver could have used more care while driving, and perhaps this lawsuit will give them the incentive to drive more carefully in the future. At the same time, accident victims deserve compensation when they are hurt through no fault of their own.

However, some accidents have a less predictable cause: a sudden medical emergency. These emergencies make it difficult for a person to control their vehicle, which unsurprisingly leads to a crash. These motorists suffering a health crisis are not at fault in the same way as negligent drivers. Yes, they may technically have “caused” an accident. But they used sufficient care—or they would have if they did not have a sudden medical emergency.

In Nevada, a driver can sometimes raise the sudden medical emergency doctrine. Below, our Las Vegas Car Accident Attorney answers many of the most common questions regarding it.

What is the sudden medical emergency doctrine?

The Nevada Supreme Court endorsed the sudden emergency doctrine in 2010.

Essentially, our Supreme Court recognized that a sudden emergency might lead to an accident, which makes the accident not the fault of either party. In a car accident case, this could include a person losing control of their vehicle due to an unforeseen medical emergency. For this reason, it is typically the defendant who raises this argument in defense of crashing into someo


Generally, a driver will need to prove the following:

  • The sudden medical emergency was unforeseeable
  • The defendant didn’t cause the sudden medical emergency
  • The defendant otherwise exercised due care
  • The sudden medical emergency is the cause of the crash

What are examples of medical emergencies?

model car with stethoscope

The most common medical emergencies that could arise while driving:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Seizure
  • Panic attack
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Choking
  • Sudden unconsciousness

Who has the burden of proving a sudden medical emergency?

The defendant in a car accident lawsuit has the burden. They must present evidence to establish that they lost control or consciousness due to a sudden medical emergency. This evidence also must be significant.

What does it mean that a medical emergency is “unforeseeable”?

Many people have medical conditions which might lead to a loss of consciousness. If they know this fact, they can’t get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. For example, someone might have narcolepsy, which causes them to nod off briefly in the middle of the day. If they know this but still get into a car to drive, then their briefly falling asleep is not an unforeseeable event. They should have expected that to happen. Consequently, the defendant can’t use the medical condition as an excuse for crashing into someone.

Similarly, many people take medication to treat medical conditions. One common side effect is fatigue. If you take a pill and fall asleep while driving, then you also can’t claim the sudden medical emergency defense. You should have known that fatigue was a side effect of your medication if it was listed on the bottle or included in the documentation that came from the pharmacy.

What does it mean that a defendant must otherwise exercise due care?

Having a medical emergency isn’t a license to be careless. Some emergencies will not cause a person to black out, or there is some hint that a person is having a medical crisis. For example, many panic attacks start with a feeling of numbness in the limbs, which slowly builds in intensity. If you are experiencing any type of medical problem, you should slow down and try to get to the side of the road. You can’t continue barreling down the freeway at 75 miles per hour as your panic attack gathers steam.

Likewise, if you begin choking, you should slow down if possible. You can’t keep your foot pressed to the accelerator as you approach a crosswalk full of pedestrians. If you do, then your sudden medical emergency isn’t to blame because you had the chance to drive more carefully.  

Of course, if you have a stroke and completely black out instantly, then you have no chance to drive more carefully. So we need to carefully analyze your medical episode.

What evidence is helpful for this defense?

A driver claiming this defense would need to show they did, in fact, suffer a medical emergency. Emergency room records are very helpful. Someone having a heart attack is usually rushed to the hospital in the back of an ambulance soon after the crash. Passengers in your car can also helpfully testify that you were experiencing a serious medical problem that led to the collision.

A driver also needs to show that they didn’t have a history of this medical problem arising. If you repeatedly experienced unconsciousness or a loss of control, then you can’t claim that the medical condition was unforeseen. This might require going through your medical history. Although people find this invasive, it is necessary to convince a court of this defense.

What if I was hurt by a driver claiming a medical emergency?

You can still bring a claim against the driver. As mentioned above, they bear the burden of proving a sudden medical emergency. They might raise it in defense at trial, or their insurer could use it as a reason to deny your claim for compensation.

As your attorney, we might push back on any claim that the driver’s medical problems were unforeseeable or sudden. For example, we might talk to the driver’s friends or family to find out if he or she had experienced seizures, fits, or unconsciousness before. We might also challenge whether the driver used reasonable care once it was apparent that they were not feeling well.

Can I receive compensation even if a driver suffered a medical emergency?

You could. There might be other people you could sue apart from the motorists with the health crisis. For example, we might bring a claim against:

  • The driver’s doctor. Many people with serious medical conditions need a doctor’s clearance to receive permission from the state to drive. If the driver unreasonably gave that clearance, we might sue them for your accident.
  • The driver’s pharmacist. This person might have failed to properly advise the driver of the side effects of their medication.
  • Other drivers. Someone else on the road could have contributed to the crash. Under Nevada law, we can sue them for compensation for your injuries.

Can I make a claim on my own insurance?

It depends on the insurance that you have. You might submit a claim on your medical payments coverage, which can pay for medical care following an accident. One reason to work with an attorney is that we can review all possible avenues for receiving compensation if you were hurt by a driver having a sudden medical emergency.

Contact Ladah Law to Discuss Your Case

Our law firm has seen many drivers raise this defense to avoid liability. To learn more about the legal strengths of your case, give us a call at (702) 252-0055. Las Vegas Accident Lawyer can meet for a confidential case review.