The Erie County Legal Journal reported a recent post trial opinion which reveals a shocking verdict from an Erie County jury. Purchase and George, P.C. was not involved in any way with this case.
In Warren v. Thomas , Mr. Warren (the plaintiff) was injured after being struck from behind by Mr. Thomas (the defendant). Both parties agreed on those facts. Slam dunk, right? Not so fast. There’s no such thing as a sure winner in a jury trial. In fact, in today’s tort reform world, juries are so skeptical of personal injury claims that even a case like this one is not guaranteed to end in a verdict for the innocent injured party. Of course, Mr. Warren thinks the jury may have been misled by some inaccurate jury instructions (and he may be right about that) but the larger lesson of such a result is that juries in Erie County are highly resistant to finding for injured plaintiffs, even when there is no dispute as to injury and even when the plaintiff was rear-ended by the defendant.
The facts of the case bear some examination. On March 2, 2005 the City of Erie was in the midst of a lake effect storm. Traffic moved slowly near the intersection of East 38th and Wallace Streets. Both Mr. Warren and Mr. Thomas were westbound on 38th Street, Mr. Thomas trailing Mr. Warren. When Mr. Warren stopped for the light, Mr. Thomas failed to stop and struck Mr. Warren in the rear.
Allegedly, Mr. Thomas and his counsel conceded fault throughout much of the pre-trial process. At trial, however, Mr. Thomas claimed he might not have been responsible for the accident. The area of the road where the accident happened was, according to Mr. Thomas, unexpectedly slippery. This unexpected slipperiness (in the midst of a lake effect snowstorm) constituted a “sudden emergency” which relieved him of responsibility for the accident, Mr. Thomas argued.
The trial judge thought Mr. Thomas had proved enough to warrant a “sudden emergency” instruction to the jury and so the jury was told that a driver like Mr. Thomas, who is presented with a sudden and unexpected perilous situation with no opportunity to apprehend or respond to the peril , is not to be held to the same standard of care as other drivers in more routine circumstances. The jury thought this instruction was important enough that they came back after some deliberation and asked to hear it again. After hearing the “sudden emergency” instruction a second time, the jury returned a verdict which found that Mr. Thomas was not to blame for having rear-ended Mr. Warren.
Plaintiff’s counsel rightly objected to the sudden emergency instruction to the jury and has at least some chance of success on appeal. For the most part, the sudden emergency doctrine is supposed to be limited to moving objects that suddenly thrust themselves into the path of an automobile’s travel. Thus, if an oncoming vehicle crosses the center line and heads right at you and you veer off the road (to avoid the oncoming vehicle) and strike a pedestrian you will not be held to the same standard of care as a driver who did not have to deal with the sudden occurrence of a vehicle heading straight at them. The sudden emergency doctrine is not historically applied to conditions like snow and ice. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how it can be said that slippery conditions in a snowstorm constitute an unexpected condition.
Regardless of how the appeal ends, the fact remains that an Erie County jury heard this case and decided that the defendant and his insurance carrier should not be held responsible for an accident that was obviously the defendant’s fault. It’s a reminder to all Erie injury lawyers that there are no “slam dunk” jury trials and it’s a reminder to all Erie car accident lawyers to take nothing for granted.
An interesting side note in all of this concerns the tactics of the insurance defense lawyer. According to plaintiff’s counsel, the insurance defense lawyer had conceded all along that there would be no dispute about liability. In fact, plaintiff’s counsel claims that the insurance defense lawyer had agreed prior to trial that he would stipulate (a binding, legal agreement between lawyers in a case) that defendant was at fault in the accident. The defense of a “sudden emergency” allegedly was not raised until the very end of the case. I know a lot of insurance defense lawyers. Most of them are honorable and would never employ such a tactic. But not all insurance defense lawyers are above such tactics.