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PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT SCRUTINIZES THE “SUDDEN EMERGENCY” DEFENSE

PedestNight

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a majority opinion authored by Justice David Wecht, published on December 22, 2020, struck a significant blow to the sudden emergency defense in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Specifically, in Graham v. Check, a pedestrian was stricken by a motor vehicle at nighttime, in an area with no crosswalk.  The Trial Court, at defendant’s request, charged the jury on “the sudden emergency defense.”  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, reversed the Trial Court and found the facts did not support the sudden emergency jury charge defense.  In considering sudden emergency, the Supreme Court stated:

  • “[S]ince the advent of the automobile, Pennsylvania law has imposed a heightened standard of care upon drivers to exercise particular vigilance when it is reasonably foreseeable that a pedestrian will cross their path, particularly at intersections.”
  • “Counterposed against this doctrine in the context of a pedestrian strike is the bedrock principle that a driver bears a heightened duty of care relative to pedestrians crossing at intersections. . .  At street crossings, drivers must be highly vigilant and maintain such control that they can stop their cars on the shortest possible notice.  It is the highest duty of motorists.  The pedestrian has the right of way.”  (Citations omitted)
  • “[A] person cannot avail himself of the protection of this doctrine [sudden emergency] if that person himself was driving carelessly or recklessly.”

Portending future analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted the presentation of “detailed arguments and authorities in favor of abolishing the sudden emergency doctrine entirely.  While we review case law and commentary to that effect as a way of advancing the law of Pennsylvania, we decline at this time to rule so expansively.”

The law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is what the Supreme Court says it is.  Accordingly, going forward, it appears that the Sudden Emergency Defense in Pennsylvania has been diminished and ultimately, the doctrine may be eliminated.

Stay tuned.

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