When confronted with emergencies, even the most sensible people often fail to act with the reasonableness they would display in calmer circumstances. Given that the key inquiry in ascertaining negligence liability is whether one’s conduct was reasonable under the circumstances, it follows that the existence of an emergency should factor into the calculus of establishing whether someone was negligent. However, which sorts of circumstances constitute an “emergency,” permitting the application of this emergency situation defense? This question was at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Smith v. Norfolk S. R.R. Co., which involved the application of the emergency situation rule to a railroad accident.
The accident at issue in Smith occurred on March 12, 2013. On that day, a pickup truck with two occupants was traveling southbound along Buford Highway. According to an eyewitness, the pickup truck failed to slow as it approached the intersection of Buford Highway and Amwiler Road. As the light turned red, the pickup truck proceeded through the intersection, where it collided with a van that was making a left turn onto Amwiler Road from the northbound lanes of Buford Highway. The collision caused both vehicles to veer off course. The van settled on a grassy area near Buford Highway, and the pickup came to a stop on the railroad tracks that cross Amwiler. Shortly after the pickup truck came to a rest on the tracks, the crossing signals activated, and the crossing gates closed for an approaching train. Other vehicles honked their horns to warn the occupants of the oncoming train.