Sudden Medical Emergency Defense

November 20th, 2020

The Washington State Court of Appeals (Division 2) recently issued an opinion that favored the defendant driver, who caused an accident after he had a sudden loss of consciousness due to a heart attack while driving a bus.  The sudden medical emergency defense is alive and well in Washington. 

Alonzo McPike, a bus driver for Pierce Transit, lost control of his bus and collided into plaintiff’s car.  However, McPike had a heart attack that caused him to lose control.  There was some sympathy for McPike as he passed away four weeks later without regaining consciousness.  His passengers noticed him slumped in the driver’s seat, so there was no denying he had a medical emergency.  The issue then turned on whether he or his employer should have foreseen this possibility.  Plaintiff claimed the employer should have monitored McPike’s health and the doctor who passed him on his commercial driver’s license (“CDL”) physical exam failed to perform a thorough exam.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of McPike’s estate, Pierce Transit, and the CDL doctor. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The law remains, a driver who loses consciousness unexpectedly is negligent only if the loss of consciousness was reasonably foreseeable. While McPike was 53, overweight, had hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes, they were all well-controlled with medication. He had no prior heart attacks.  His treating doctor noted that nothing in McPike’s health history warned against driving; if his doctor could not foresee the heart attack, the court reasoned neither McPike nor Pierce Transit should have foreseen the heart attack, either.

Next plaintiff argued the standard should be that if McPike’s driving could be impacted, then his potential medical problem should have precluded him from driving. Plaintiff submitted a medical doctor’s declaration that “the event was hardly unforeseen,” given McPike’s medical history. That being said, the court noted the issue at hand was not whether the loss of consciousness was foreseeable to Dr. Fletcher (Plaintiff’s medical expert) upon reading McPike’s medical records. The law required that plaintiff establish the loss of consciousness was foreseeable to McPike. Not a single treatment provider warned McPike against driving.

Plaintiff did not give up and next argued that McPike’s loss of consciousness was not sudden as passengers had seen McPike run some stop signs and “behave erratically,” which should have warned McPike to stop driving. But the court felt there were many reasons McPike could have been acting differently before the accident and there was no reason to believe that his erratic behavior should have warned him of a heart attack.

Ultimately, the plaintiff failed to present evidence that McPike had been warned by a medical provider that he was at risk for a heart attack or that he was having medical issues that should have kept him from driving on the day in question. There was no indication a more thorough CDL exam or more monitoring by Pierce Transit would have revealed McPike was at risk for a heart attack.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in applying the sudden loss of consciousness defense and granting summary judgement in favor of the defendants.