Drivers’ Liability: The Unavoidable Accident Defense

Texas courts acknowledge an automobile collision may be an “unavoidable accident,” which is defined as “an event not proximately caused by the negligence of any party to it.”[1] Stated differently, an unavoidable accident “is an accident that ordinary care and diligence could not have prevented, or one which could not have been foreseen or prevented by the exercise of reasonable precautions.”[2] Under Texas law, unforeseeable loss of consciousness can be considered an unavoidable accident.[3] The purpose of an unavoidable accident instruction “is to ensure that the jury will understand that ‘they do not necessarily have to find that one or the other parties to the suit was to blame for the occurrence complained of.’”[4]

Unavoidable Accidents and the Unforeseeable Loss of Consciousness as a Defense

In a suit arising out of an automobile collision, an unforeseeable loss of consciousness is a complete defense to a claim of negligence in a car accident suit. It is the defendant's burden to produce sufficient evidence to establish this defense as a matter of law. In Texas, the defense of unavoidable accident due to an unforeseeable loss of consciousness may be successfully raised so long as the driver can prove that he was “(1) incapacitated before the collision; (2) the incapacity caused the collision; and (3) his incapacitation was not foreseeable.”[5]

In Gomez v. Cooke, a husband and wife were involved in a car accident while driving on a cross-country road trip.[6] Immediately prior to the accident, the wife saw her husband slumped over in his seat, completely non-responsive, which caused his truck to swerve left and collide with six other vehicles.[7] At the hospital, the doctors determined the husband had suffered a stroke, which caused him to lose consciousness. The husband asserted the unavoidable accident defense, arguing the crash was unavoidable because his stroke was unforeseeable.[8] The trial court held the husband established sufficient evidence to show the accident was unforeseeable.

On appeal, the court of appeals looked to the testimony of the husband's treating physician to determine whether the husband's stroke was unforeseeable.[9] Specifically, the court of appeals noted (1) Dr. Fairbanks concluded the husband's risk of a stroke was “minimal,” and (2) Dr. Fairbanks neither told the husband there was a risk of stroke nor foresaw a risk the husband would suffer a stroke and become incapacitated while driving.[10] Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling, holding the accident was due to an unforeseeable cause. The court recognized that the husband was not required to know more than an expert, or to foresee what his treating physician could not.[11]

In Piatt v. Welch, the defendant driver (“Welch”) was driving a vehicle for Salvation Army and lost consciousness, which caused him to strike another vehicle.[12] Prior to the collision, Welch had been diagnosed as a diabetic.[13] However, both Welch and his doctor testified that he properly maintained his diabetic condition prior to the accident.[14] Specifically, Welch testified he had never suffered a blackout before or after the collision, he took his medication religiously, he did so on the day of the accident, he checked his blood sugar level on the morning of the accident, and it was within the 100 to 200 range, which was normal for him.[15] Additionally, Dr. Patel acknowledge diabetic patients are not routinely advised that failure to maintain their blood sugar levels could lead to a loss of consciousness.[16] Based on this testimony, the court concluded Welch was neither negligent nor liable for the damages because the collision was due to an unforeseeable loss of consciousness.[17]

In, First City Nat's Bank v. Japhet, the defendant driver (“Dow”) suffered a heart attack while driving, resulting in his car driving onto the Plaintiff's premises.[18] At trial, Dow's cardiovascular physician, testified that (1) Dow had been his patient since 1954, and would come every year or so for a general examination; (2) Dow had come to see him every 10 days before his death; (3) Dow never had a heart attack prior to the time of his death, but he did have congestive heart failure; (4) he had advised Dow he could drive his car as it would involve no labor; (5) he had seen Dow at 2 p.m. on the day of his death, and Dow advised him he felt better; (6) there was nothing to put him or a heart specialist on guard with regard to a cardiac arrest; and (7) he thinks a ventricular fibrillation occurred, so that blood would no longer be sent properly up to Dow's brain, causing loss of consciousness and death.[19] Here the court concluded Dow was not liable for the damage to the property because the damage was caused by an unforeseeable loss of consciousness, rendering the accident unavoidable.[20] Accordingly, a driver will not be liable for the damages resulting from a car accident, if the driver is able to prove that the accident was due to an unforeseeable loss of consciousness.

Conclusion

Under Texas law, an unavoidable accident defense is a complete defense against negligence/gross negligence claims. For a driver to properly assert this defense, the driver must show that they were incapacitated before the accident occurred, the incapacitation caused the collision, and the particular incapacitation was not foreseeable. If a driver successfully proves all three elements, the driver will not be held liable for the damages.


[1] Dillard v. Texas Elec. Co-op., 157 S.W.3d 429, 431 (Tex. 2005) (citing State Bar of Texas, Texas Pattern Jury Charges, General Negligence & Intentional Personal Torts PJC 3.4 (2003) (Unavoidable Accident)); Reinhart v. Young, 906 S.W.2d 471, 472 (Tex. 1995).

[2] Gomez v. Cooke, No. 14-15-00010-CV, 2016 WL 836781, at *1 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Mar. 3, 2016, no pet.).

[3] See First City Nat'l Bank of Hous. v. Japhet, 390 S.W.2d 70, 75 (Tex. Civ. App.—Houston 1965, writ dism'd); see also Evans v. Allwhite, 111 S.W.3d 282, 284 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2003, no pet.) (driver lost consciousness).

[4] Reinhart, 906 S.W.2d at 472 (quoting Yarborough v. Berner, 467 S.W.2d 188, 192 (Tex. 1971)); Piatt v. Welch, 974 S.W.2d 786, 788 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1988, no pet.).

[5] Piatt v. Welch, 974 S.W.2d 786, 788 (Tex. App. – El Paso 1988, no pet.).

[6] Gomez v. Cooke, No. 14-15-00010-CV, 2016 WL 836781, at *1 (Tex. App. Mar. 3, 2016).

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 2.

[9] Id. at *3.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at *4.

[12] Piatt v. Welch, 974 S.W.2d 786, 787 (Tex. App. – El Paso 1988, no pet.).

[13] Id. at 789.

[14] Id. at 795.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 788.

[18] First City Nat. Bank of Houston v. Japhet, 390 S.W.2d at 71–2 (Tex. Civ. App.—Houston 1965, writ dism'd).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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