Imagine this…you are sitting in traffic at a stop light in line with several other cars when a car comes along at full speed and plows into the back of the line causing a chain-reaction collision. You should be able to recover compensation for your injuries because the operator of the last car is obviously negligent, right? Well, yesterday, the Maryland Court of Appeals held otherwise.
In Cooper v. Singleton, Maryland’s highest court considered the defense of sudden incapacity. The defendant requested and received a jury instruction stating that where the defendant breaches a duty owed to the plaintiff due to an unforeseen incapacity rendering him unable to avoid or prevent an accident causing injury that the defendant is not negligent. In Maryland, negligence is what the plaintiff must prove in an automobile accident case. The law defines negligence as simply the breach of a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff. We all owe a duty to control our automobiles and bring them to a stop before hitting another vehicle. Well, at least if we are conscious.
In this case, the defendant had been on seizure medication from 1990 until the time of the accident which occurred in 2010. In fairness to the defense, the defendant had not had a seizure between 2004 and the date of the accident and the doctor had cleared the defendant to operate a motor vehicle. As stated above, the underlying dispute in this case was over what instructions would be given to the jury by the judge. The plaintiff essentially wanted to shift the burden of proof to the defendant to prove that he was not negligent. The judge refused to go along with this requested and instead instructed the jury that the burden of persuasion remains with the plaintiff. The court correctly instructed that the burden of production shifted to the defendant once the plaintiff established a prima facie case. This means that the defendant had to offer a plausible explanation of how the accident occurred that did not rely on the defendant being negligent. The defendant did this by showing a strong case of sudden incapacity. It’s hard to argue that an unconscious person owes a duty of care!
This is a particularly harsh outcome for the plaintiff in this case, but from a logical standpoint it is a sensible decision. It’s also a reminder that sometimes an accident is not the result of someone’s negligence. In other words, sometimes an accident is just an accident!
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