Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #355602; Unpublished
Judges Borrello, Shapiro, and Hood; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Applicability of Comparative Fault to Noneconomic Loss Claims [§3135(2)]
Sudden Emergency Doctrine
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of Defendant William Richard Crisman’s motion for summary disposition seeking dismissal of Plaintiff Montez Hill’s auto negligence action, and remanded for entry of an order granting Crisman’s motion. The Court of Appeals held that no reasonable juror could conclude that Hill was less than 50% at fault for the subject motor vehicle collision and, alternatively, that any negligent acts committed by Crisman were excused by the sudden-emergency doctrine.
Montez Hill and William Crisman were both driving westbound on I-96 during a snowstorm in their respective vehicles. Hill was driving a Mercury Marquis in the middle lane of the three-lane highway, and Crisman was driving his employer’s semi-truck in the far-right lane. Hill passed Crisman on the left, then lost control of his vehicle upon reaching a curve in the highway. His vehicle spun out and struck the concrete barrier on the far-left side of the highway, before disappearing into a cloud of snow. Upon seeing Hill lose control, Crisman applied the semi-truck’s engine brake, only for Hill’s vehicle to reappear from the cloud of snow as it propelled backward into Crisman’s lane of travel, causing a collision between the two vehicles. In Hill’s subsequent third-party action against Crisman, Hill retained an expert accident reconstructionist, Marc Edgcombe, who concluded (1) that if Hill maintained control of his vehicle, the crash would not have occurred, but (2) that Crisman could have avoided the crash if he had applied his service brake instead of engine braking. Crisman moved for summary disposition, arguing that no reasonable juror could conclude that Hill was less than 50% at-fault, but the trial court denied his motion, finding a question of fact regarding each driver’s comparative fault.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of Crisman’s motion for summary disposition, holding, first, that no reasonable juror could conclude that Hill was less than 50% at-fault for the collision. Hill was an inexperienced driver, driving too fast for conditions, who lost control of his vehicle and over-corrected upon losing control of his vehicle. Moreover, his own accident reconstructionist opined that the crash would not have happened if Hill had maintained control of his vehicle. Thus, even if Crisman could have avoided the crash had he applied the correct brake, Hill was still at least 50% at-fault.
“Edgcombe conceded that Hill’s inexperience, his driving in excess of the posted speed limit, driving too fast for the conditions, and over-correcting when he initially lost control of his vehicle all contributed to the accident. Edgcombe testified that he would not have taken issue with a police officer citing Hill for driving too fast for the conditions. Ultimately, Edgcombe agreed that had Hill maintained control of his vehicle, the accident would not have occurred.
By contrast, the unrefuted evidence established that Crisman was operating his vehicle at approximately 55 mph, well below the posted speed limit, when Hill approached him on the left. The testimony further established that at the point at which Hill began to lose control of his vehicle, Crisman promptly reacted. Hill’s expert concluded that Crisman engaged the engine brake ‘very soon after’ Hill began to lose control of his vehicle. According to Hill’s expert, this resulted in Crisman further reducing his speed to 40 mph. Crisman maintained his course of travel in the far right lane, which was the lane at the greatest distance from Hill. Then, when Hill’s vehicle unexpectedly reversed into Crisman’s lane of travel, Crisman engaged the service brake. Hill’s expert agreed that this was a reasonable action under the circumstances.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, Hill argues that had Crisman reacted differently, the accident could have been avoided. Hill’s expert opined that when Crisman initially observed Hill begin to lose control of his vehicle, had he used the service brake instead of engine breaking, he could have brought his semi-tractor trailer to a stop four feet short of where the impact ultimately occurred. Even assuming that this opinion is credible, in order to survive defendants’ motion for summary disposition, Hill was required to present evidence indicating that Crisman was more at fault than Hill as required by MCL 500.3101(2)(b). The evidence did not give rise to a question of fact in this regard. Because no reasonable juror could conclude that Hill was less than 50% at fault for the accident, defendants were entitled to summary disposition.”
The Court held, alternatively, that any negligent acts committed by Crisman would be excused by the sudden-emergency doctrine. The Court found that Hill’s vehicle’s unexpected re-entry into Crisman’s lane of traffic constituted a sudden emergency, and thus, under the doctrine, Crisman could not be liable for any negligence he may have committed by applying the engine brake instead of the service brake.
“Hill’s argument is based on a misunderstanding of the circumstances that give rise to a sudden emergency. ‘To come within the purview of [the sudden-emergency doctrine] the circumstances attending the accident must present a situation that is unusual or unsuspected.’ Vander Laan, 385 Mich at 231 (quotation marks omitted). The unusual or unsuspected events that created a sudden emergency were Hill’s sudden loss of control of his vehicle, which caused the vehicle to strike the center concrete barrier and then travel across three lanes of traffic into Crisman’s lane. Hill faults Crisman for failing to engage the service brake when he first saw Hill lose control of his vehicle, but that decision involved Crisman’s response to the emergent situation suddenly created by Hill’s loss of control, and a person faced with a sudden emergency ‘is not guilty of negligence if he fails to adopt what subsequently and upon reflection may appear to have been a better method, unless the emergency in which he finds himself is brought about by his own negligence.’ Vsetula, 187 Mich App at 680-681. There is no evidence that Crisman did anything to cause Hill to lose control of his vehicle, or did anything that contributed to Hill’s vehicle striking the center concrete barrier and then being propelled across three lanes of traffic into Crisman’s lane. . . .
Further, Edgcombe’s opinion that Crisman should have engaged the service brake when he first saw Hill out of control is a tacit acknowledgment that a sudden emergency existed. Hill’s expert asserts that had the service brake been engaged, Crisman would have brought the vehicle to a stop 4 feet from the ultimate point of impact. That Hill would advocate for a semi-tractor to come abruptly to a complete stop, on an expressway, during a winter snow storm, if there was not a sudden and emergent need to do so, supports the conclusion that there was a sudden emergency. The undisputed and unbroken chain of events established that Crisman was faced with a sudden emergency. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Hill, reasonable minds could not differ in this regard. Hill’s suggestion to the contrary is not supported by the evidence. Whether the Court views the onset of the sudden emergency as 11 seconds before impact, when Hill first began to spin out, or 2 seconds before impact, when Hill jolted backward across the highway into Crisman’s lane, the conclusion is the same: a sudden emergency existed, and Crisman acted prudently.”