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'Sudden Medical Emergency' Upheld as Absolute Defense Against Traffic Accident Liability

2002-0285. Roman v. Estate of Gobbo, 2003-Ohio-3655.
Cuyahoga App. No. 79119. Judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., Resnick, F.E. Sweeney, Walters and Lundberg Stratton, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, J., concurs separately.
Pfeifer, J., concurs in part and dissents in part.
Sumner Walters, J., of the Third Appellate District, sitting for Cook, J.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2003/2003-Ohio-3655.pdf

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(July 23, 2003) In a case in which the Supreme Court was urged to overturn a longstanding precedent, the justices today upheld a 1956 ruling that a driver who loses consciousness and causes an accident as the result of a sudden and unforeseeable medical emergency does not act negligently, and thus cannot be held liable for damages arising from the accident.

Generally, Ohio law holds that if a driver who causes an accident was violating a traffic ordinance at the time of the crash, that driver is presumed to have acted negligently. In the 1956 case of Lehman v. Haynam, however, the court established an exception to this doctrine. In Lehman the court held that a driver cannot be held negligent if he was unable to control his vehicle as the result of losing consciousness during a sudden medical emergency that he could not anticipate or prevent. The decision has remained controlling on Ohio trial and appellate courts to the present time.

Today's decision involves a 1999 multicar crash caused by Nino Gobbo of Cleveland. Gobbo suffered a fatal heart attack while behind the wheel, and his runaway vehicle killed his wife and two occupants of another car, and injured passenger William Gold and the driver of a third car, Walter Roman. Gold, Roman and family members of those killed filed a joint lawsuit against Gobbo's estate to recover damages arising from the accident. The jury found that Gobbo had violated a safety statute (driving left of center) in triggering the accident, but returned a verdict denying recovery to the plaintiffs based on the 'sudden medical emergency' exception. The 8th District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's verdict, citing Lehman.

In appealing the 8th District decision to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Roman, Gold and the other plaintiffs urged the justices to reassess Lehman and eliminate or qualify the "sudden medical emergency" doctrine. They urged the court to consider the intent of legislation and court decisions since 1956 that have mandated all Ohio drivers to carry liability insurance and required auto insurers to offer uninsured motorist coverage with all auto policies with the apparent goal of insuring that accident victims will not be left without recourse for potentially catastrophic injuries and economic loss arising from accidents they did not cause.

The plaintiffs noted that, by making unforeseen medical emergencies an absolute defense against liability, Lehman has had the unintended consequence of denying victims recovery not only from a defendant driver's insurance, but also from the uninsured motorist coverage in their own policies – because uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits can be claimed only if a driver who is legally liable for a victim's damages lacks sufficient insurance coverage to compensate the victim for those losses.

In a decision written by Justice Alice Robie Resnick and joined in full or in part by all six other justices, the court rejected the plaintiffs' arguments and reaffirmed the basic premise of Lehman v. Haynam.

"(T)he rule of Lehman is sound and there is no reason for this court to overrule it," wrote Justice Resnick.

"A central feature of negligence law is that to be found negligent, a defendant must have acted unreasonably. Where there is no unreasonable conduct, there is no fault. To find a defendant liable for the effects of an unforeseen medical emergency…would be to impose strict liability, which is inappropriate for this situation."

The opinion also rejected arguments by the accident victims that the court should modify the "forseeability" element of the sudden medical emergency defense to require that a driver with a known medical condition be held liable for injuries caused to others if a loss of consciousness or incapacitation due to the known condition results in an accident.

"If we accept this argument, then only those defendants who have never had any inkling of any medical condition would be able to assert and prevail on the sudden-medical-emergency defense," wrote Justice Resnick.

"As urged by appellants, the forseeability inquiry…would be redefined to remove any consideration of the reasonableness of choosing to drive despite imperfect health and would essentially mean that all drivers with any history of illness are unable as a matter of law to prevail on a sudden-medical-emergency defense."

Noting that Lehman properly places the burden of proving that a medical emergency was not foreseeable on the driver who caused an accident, Justice Resnick stated, "We see no compelling reason to disrupt the balance put in place by Lehman."

"While we sympathize with appellants," she concluded, "we find that they are precluded from recovering when negligence per se is excused."

In a separate opinion, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concurred with the majority's legal reasoning in upholding Lehman, but said he favors modifying the sudden medical emergency doctrine as a matter of common sense.

"A better rule would allow individuals like those killed or injured here to pursue damages against a person whose sudden medical emergency resulted in a statutory violation and was the proximate cause of the death or injury," said Pfeifer.

"The result in this case would likely be that the accident victims would be able to collect damages under Gobbo's liability insurance or their own uninsured motorist coverage. That makes sense."

Justice Maureen O'Connor entered a separate concurrence in which she endorsed the majority holding, but also partially joined Justice Pfeifer's dissent regarding the unreasonableness of allowing victims of accidents caused by medical emergencies to go uncompensated. "I stop short of fully concurring with Justice Pfeifer's opinion," she wrote, "because the remedy should come in the form of a well-reasoned and well-drafted legislative enactment, not by judicial fiat."

Gerald S. Gold, Jennifer E. Schwartz and Brian P. Downey, 216.696.6122, for Walter P. Roman and other accident victims.

Frederic E. Kramer, 216.621.9870, for Gobbo Estate.