Sudden Emergency Defense- Suddenly disappears in Pennsylvania?


By: Josh Ferguson

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that appears to limit, if not eliminate, the sudden emergency defense in motor vehicle accident claims. Graham v. Check, No. 42 WAP 2019 (Pa. Dec. 22, 2020).

In that matter, Plaintiff was a pedestrian who was struck and seriously injured by Defendant. In the case the Defendant driver used the “sudden emergency” defense that he claims precluded him from braking in time to prevent hitting the man. The trial court provided jury instructions regarding Sudden Emergency Doctrine.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the trial court in this case erred in instructing the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine as evidence of darkness, an obstructed view, and a lack of evidence of any overtly careless behavior. 

On behalf of the 5-2 majority, Justice Wecht noted that the sudden emergency doctrine “should not be understood as a ‘defense’ in the common sense, and finds it ill-advised to use the word ‘defense’ in sudden emergency [jury] instructions in future cases, notwithstanding that the term features in the current suggested standard jury instruction. “We cannot conclude that the error was harmless,” Wecht said. “Thus, Graham is entitled to a new trial untainted by the sudden emergency instruction. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Superior Court arming the trial court’s decision to instruct the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine, and we remand for a new trial.”

Future cases will determine whether this has completely eliminated use of the “sudden emergency” defense in Pennsylvania, but there is no doubt it is a change and should be factored into an analysis of defenses in a motor vehicle accident claim.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Josh Ferguson at