June 22, 2024

Imminent Peril

An action in negligence requires a showing that a defendant owed a personal injury plaintiff a legal duty, that the defendant breached the duty, and that the breach was a proximate or legal cause of the injuries plaintiff suffered.

The Restatement of Torts defines “negligence” as conduct which falls below the standard established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm. Restatement, Second, Torts §282.

Generally, every person has a right to presume that every other person will perform his duty and obey the law. In the absence of reasonable ground to think otherwise, it is not negligence to assume that one is not exposed to danger which comes to him only from violation of the law or duty by another person.

In determining whether conduct is negligent towards another, the fact that the actor is confronted with a sudden emergency, which requires rapid decision, is a factor in determining the reasonable character of his choice of action. Restatement, Second, Torts, §296(1).

Under the doctrine of imminent peril, also known as the emergency doctrine, a person who, without negligence on his part, is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with peril, is not expected nor required to exercise the same ordinary care as in more deliberate moments.

The basis of the doctrine of imminent peril is that the actor is left no time for thought, or is so disturbed or excited, that he cannot weigh alternative courses of action, and must make a quick decision, based on impulse or conjecture. Under emergency conditions, the actor cannot reasonably be held to the same conduct as one who has had full opportunity to reflect, even though in hindsight, it appears that he made a decision no reasonable person could have made after due deliberation.

The judgment and prudence that the actor is held to is the course of action that a standard man in that emergency might have taken. Such a course of action is not negligent even though it led to an injury which might have been prevented by adopting an alternative course of action.

For example, a defendant was driving on the freeway in a non-negligent manner when, without notice, a wheel suddenly came off the left side of a trailer in front of him. The tire went straight towards defendant’s vehicle, and bounced windshield high. Because defendant assumed that the position of his vehicle was safe and free from peril while he was driving, the presence of the tire disturbed and excited him. In an attempt to avoid hitting the tire, defendant swerved to the fast lane, without time for reflection and weighing of alternative courses of action. It was then that defendant’s vehicle came into contact with plaintiff’s vehicle. After defendant disengaged his vehicle from plaintiff’s vehicle, the tire chased him from lane to lane until he got off the road. Negligence may not be predicated on defendant because he exercised the judgment and prudence required of one unexpectedly confronted with imminent peril. He cannot be held to the same conduct as one who has had full opportunity to deliberate. It is reasonable for a person, driving on the freeway, suddenly faced with a bouncing tire, to make a quick decision, based on impulse or conjecture, to swerve out of its way. Defendant’s confrontation with peril arose from either the actual presence or the appearance, of imminent danger to himself or others.

Under the emergency doctrine, one confronted with peril that arises from either the actual presence, or the appearance of imminent danger to himself or to others, is not expected nor required to use the same judgment that is required in calmer situations. The mere appearance of, not an actaul, imminent peril, is enough to invoke the doctrine of imminent peril.

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