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.
The train was traveling within the speed limit required by federal regulations, but the engineer did not comply with federal regulations requiring that the locomotive blow one short horn blast and one long horn blast up until it enters a public crossing. See 49 C.F.R. § 222.21. Instead, after blowing the first of the required blasts, the engineer noticed the obstruction on the track and began to make an emergency stop of the train, which was carrying hazardous materials. The engineer testified that he was faced with the choice of either making the second blast or continuing emergency stop procedures. The engineer took what he believed were the necessary steps to stop the train without causing a derailment, and then he began to blow the horn again only shortly before arriving at the crossing. During this string of events, the driver of the truck was slumped over the wheel, but the passenger had exited in a dazed state. According to witness testimony, he noticed the oncoming train after the resumption of the horn blast, but it was too late. The train struck the truck, which in turn hit the passenger and killed him. Video mounted on the train showed that the truck came to a rest on the track 22 seconds before the impact. The engineer sounded the horn for four seconds 22 seconds before the collision and resumed the second horn blast two seconds before the train made impact with the truck.
Following these tragic events, the children of the deceased truck passenger brought suit against the railroad company, alleging negligence and negligence per se. The railroad answered the complaint and denied liability, contending, inter alia, that the engineer’s conduct was reasonable in light of the emergency situation and that the car crash rather than the collision with the train was the proximate cause of the truck passenger’s death. The case ultimately proceeded to a jury trial, at which the jury returned a verdict favorable to the railroad, finding that the engineer’s conduct was neither negligent nor negligent per se. Judgment was entered in favor of the railroad, and the plaintiff appealed. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the verdict was erroneous because it was improper for the trial court to instruct the jury on the sudden emergency defense. The Court of Appeals, however, found no such error and affirmed the jury verdict.
Indeed, the sudden emergency defense is available when “the evidence shows that there has been a sudden peril caused by circumstances [that are not attributable to the defendant] and [that] offered him a choice of conduct without time for thought.” Jimenez v. Morgan Drive Away, 238 Ga. App. 638, 641 (1999). In these situations, “negligence in his choice might be attributable not to lack of care but to lack of time to assess the situation.” Id. If the defendant presents even slight evidence supporting the existence of an emergency, the jury may be charged on the sudden emergency defense. Stephens v. Hypes, 271 Ga. App. 863, 866 (2005). In this case, the Court of Appeals noted that there was evidence supporting the application of the defense, including the engineer’s testimony that he noticed the truck on the track with very little time to react, which was corroborated by video footage showing the truck coming to a rest on the tracks 22 seconds before the impact. In addition, the court noted there was evidence showing that the engineer did not create the emergency, for the truck had been knocked onto the tracks as a result of a separate accident. Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeal concluded that it was proper for the trial court to instruct the jury on the sudden emergency defense.
Alternatively, the plaintiffs also argued that it was erroneous to charge the jury on the sudden emergency defense because state law was preempted by federal regulations requiring the engineer to sound the horn in a particular fashion before entering a public railroad crossing. However, the plaintiff did not raise this preemption argument in the trial court, and the Court of Appeals accordingly found the issue waived. See Kent v. Henson, 174 Ga. App. 400, 403 (1985) (holding that appellate review of a jury charge is “limited strictly to the ground of objection stated . . . [at] trial.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). Even though a charge may still be reversible when “there has been a substantial error in the charge which was harmful as a matter of law,” O.C.G.A. § 5-5-24 (c), the Court of Appeals concluded that any error here was harmless. Indeed, the railroad presented substantial evidence supporting an alternative basis for the jury’s ruling, including the lack of proximate cause and the reasonableness of the engineer’s conduct. In light of these circumstances, the Court of Appeals found that there was no showing of substantial error. See, e.g., Nelson v. Miller, 169 Ga. App. 403, 405 (1984) (concluding that any error in the jury charge did not rise to substantial error because “[t]he record disclose[d] no evidence that the jury’s verdict in favor of . . . was based on the accident theory rather than a theory of comparative negligence”). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict.
Beyond providing guidance on the application of the sudden emergency defense, this decision highlights many of the difficulties one encounters when challenging a jury verdict. Indeed, appellate courts are wary to disturb a verdict and will frequently invoke waiver, harmless error, and similar doctrines to preserve the jury’s determination. Accordingly, those with possibly meritorious negligence claims should consider finding counsel well experienced in trial practice and the art of convincing trial judges and juries. The Atlanta car accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have many years of experience representing clients at the trial court level, and they are ready to provide you with guidance on a possible claim. If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident and are curious about your options for legal compensation, feel free to contact us to schedule a free case consultation.