Headworth v. Kemp (COA – UNP 4/23/2020; RB #4067)


Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 345088; Unpublished
Judges Markey, Jansen, and Boonstra; Per curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion

Not Applicable

Sudden Emergency Doctrine

In this unanimous unpublished per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s entry of judgment in favor of the defendant, Charles William Kemp, following a jury trial in which the jury returned a special verdict finding that Kemp was not negligent.  The Court of Appeals determined, as a matter of law, that the action of Kemp’s dog jumping from the back seat of Kemp’s vehicle to the front seat did not constitute a sudden emergency such that Kemp should be shielded from liability for failing to stop at a stop sign.

Kemp was approaching a stop sign at an intersection when his dog, who was unrestrained in the back of Kemp’s vehicle, suddenly jumped over the center console and onto the passenger-side floor.  Kemp looked down at the dog, ran the stop sign, and collided with a vehicle in which the plaintiff, Tammy Headworth, was traveling as a passenger.  Headworth subsequently filed this third-party automobile negligence action, and at trial, Kemp requested a jury instruction regarding the sudden emergency doctrine.  The trial court ultimately did instruct the jury regarding the sudden emergency doctrine, and the jury returned a special verdict finding that Kemp was not negligent.  Headworth filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied.

On appeal, Headworth argued that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine and by denying her motion for a new trial.  The Court of Appeals agreed, holding, as a matter of law, that Kemp’s dog’s action was not unsuspected and did not constitute a sudden emergency.

Defendant testified that his dog’s movement caused him to take his eyes off the road to see what had happened and to determine whether his dog was unharmed. But nothing about the event itself, as contrasted with defendant’s response to it, would have caused any danger to defendant, his vehicle, or other motorists on the road. The event itself did not constitute an emergency or place defendant in “a place of danger” such that he was “required to act without time to consider the best means that may be adopted to avoid the impending danger.” Socony Vacuum Oil Co, 313 Mich at 546. In Vander Laan, the defendant driver took his eyes off the road to glance in his rearview mirror in response to hitting a bump in the road; when he looked back, the vehicle ahead of him had stopped suddenly and his vehicle struck it. Id. at 233. Our Supreme Court was “unable to find any ‘emergency’ confronting the defendants such as would entitle them to an instruction [on the sudden emergency doctrine].” Similarly in this case, defendant removed his eyes from the road after his dog’s movement caught his attention; when he looked back, he had failed to stop at a stop sign and had driven into the intersection. Like the Supreme Court in Vander Laan, we are unable to find any “emergency” in this case that would entitle defendant to a jury instruction regarding the sudden emergency doctrine.

Moreover, defendant did not actually “act” in response to this event in the sense of altering the direction or speed of his vehicle; instead, he was merely distracted by it. And to the extent that defendant did “act” by continuing to drive forward without braking and while not looking at the road, not every action taken in response to a sudden emergency is excused. The sudden emergency doctrine is “a logical extension of the ‘reasonably prudent person’ rule,” Baker v Alt, 374 Mich. 492, 495; 132 NW2d 614 (1965), in that it merely modifies the duty of due care on the basis of sudden, unexpected circumstances, Vsetula v Whitmyer, 187 Mich App 675, 680–681; 468 NW2d 53 (1991). We have found no case in which the sudden emergency doctrine has been applied to excuse a driver who, without applying his brakes and while approaching an intersection, looks away from the road in response to a sudden stimulus; indeed, the closest analogue to the events of this case, Vander Laan, found no emergency in similar circumstances.