The federal District Court in Minnesota recently dismissed a lawsuit involving a traffic accident that occurred when a fuel truck driver passed out (Fetterly v. Ruan Logistics Corporation). The fuel truck struck the plaintiff's vehicle. Mayo Clinic test results on the truck driver determined that he had experienced a sudden drop in blood pressure (a syncopal episode). There was medical testimony that this event may occur once in a lifetime without any prior symptoms. Consequently, the Court determined that under Minnesota law the defendant's "Act of God" defense precluded any liability.
An "Act of God" occurs naturally without human activity. It is frequently associated with violent weather events but may include unexpected medical conditions. The key to successfully asserting the defense is a factual determination that the event was unforeseen and could not be prepared for or mitigated by human activity.
If the accident-producing event directly results from a known preexisting medical condition or weather conditions, such as visible ice on a highway, the question becomes whether or not the defendant acted reasonably. Ice cases almost always are judged under a negligence standard. The common law of negligence requires that one act reasonably in light of the total circumstances surrounding an event. What did the driver know before the accident? Consequently, how appropriate was the driver's conduct?
The Ohio Supreme Court in 2003 discussed in detail the issue of an unexpected heart attack that resulted in an accident (Roman v. Estate of Gobbo). The court affirmed the "sudden-medical-emergency" defense. While the driver had a medical history of heart issues, the heart attack was unforeseen. The Court rejected the argument that one who chooses to operate a motor vehicle with a preexisting medical condition automatically assumes the risk of causing injuries to others. A dissenting judge noted that the injured victims were not negligent. Furthermore, the majority decision prevented the victims from recovering damages or successfully asserting an insurance claim.
Many states recognize the automobile accident liability defenses of Act of God or sudden-medical-emergency. Most states require an individual diagnosed with epilepsy to be seizure-free for one year in order to obtain a driver's license. Individuals with preexisting heart attacks may be required to obtain a physician signed form indicating that it is safe to drive. Even with these precautions, unforeseen medical events that occur while driving may injure others. A public policy issue is whether or not innocent victims of the unforeseen medical events of others should be denied recovery for their injuries? Should it be possible to have an automobile accident caused by a medical condition in which no liability attaches to the medically impaired driver or the auto insurance carrier?
What would change if traffic accidents were judged under strict liability? Under a strict liability standard, driving would be classified as an ultrahazarous activity. Drivers would be automatically liable for accident injuries resulting from their driving regardless of the underlying cause. Lack of negligence or careful driving would not be a defense to liability. There would be no Act of God or sudden-medical-emergency defenses. The mere act of driving would automatically impose liability for accident injuries.
Strict liability has been historically applied to inherently dangerous activities such as using explosives, keeping a wild animal, or building a dam. Imposing strict liability on driving would be a significant change in current traffic accident law. Legislation would be the appropriate way to create this standard. Should this be done in order to allow innocent victims of unforeseen medically produced accidents to recover for their injuries? Is this too radical a change? What legal standard, if any, is appropriate to compensate innocent victims?
About a dozen states have some form of no-fault insurance that allows an insured to recover from her or his insurance carrier regardless of the underlying cause of the accident. Is this formula an appropriate replacement for the widespread negligence based system most states operate under? The concept of "fault" is said to produce safer drivers. The concept of "no fault" is said to prevent costly determinations of where and with whom the fault occurred.
The Act of God and sudden-medical-emergency defenses have an undercurrent of moral responsibility and free will. One is not morally or legally accountable for uncontrollable events. Is a responsibility based negligence standard appropriate to apply to traffic accidents in light of the large number of drivers and the frequency of traffic accidents?