We’ve all heard of those “act of God” or “emergency doctrine” clauses that can get someone who probably should be held responsible for some disaster or another off the hook. And surely, a sun glare car accident must fall under that category, right? What’s more an act of God than the sun?
Well, a Syracuse, New York, motorist who used the excuse ‘I couldn’t see the pedestrian because the sun was in my eyes’ recently had that argument thrown out by the New York Supreme Court. In a landmark ruling involving the case of Alexander Lifson, &c., Appellant, v. City of Syracuse, Defendant; Derek Klink, Respondent, the court found that the driver should have anticipated occasional sun glares considering the time of the accident.
Emergency doctrine can be a defense in sun glare accidents
Emergency doctrine can be claimed as a defense against liability in the event of an emergency under certain conditions, including:
- The person being accused (actor) is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance.
- The unexpected circumstances leave little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration.
- The circumstances cause the actor to be so (reasonably) disturbed they must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct.
If these conditions apply, then it has been ruled in the past that the actor may not be negligent if the actions they take are reasonable and prudent given the circumstances of the emergency, and providing of course that the actor did not create the emergency in the first place.
In the case in question, Derek Klink was driving near a large office complex in Sacramento called MONY Plaza. Just after 4 p.m. on February 29, 2000, Klink struck and killed Irene Lifson as she crossed the street near MONY Plaza, which is located in an area known to experience a large amount of pedestrian traffic.
The Lifson family sued both Klink and the City of Syracuse, saying Klink had been negligent, and the city had failed to study and plan for pedestrian traffic in that area. In court, Klink defense was based on emergency doctrine. He claimed:
- He had stopped at a stop sign before making a left turn.
- His view of oncoming traffic was partially obstructed by cars parked in the left-hand lane.
- Klink said he had to creep up slowly into the intersection in order to see if any vehicles were approaching.
- He said he saw pedestrians to his left before making the turn, but he testified that he had looked left and “cleared the road” before making his turn.
- Just before making the left turn, he looked right to make a last check for oncoming traffic, and as he then turned left to continue making his turn, he was very suddenly and unexpectedly blinded by the sun in mid-turn.
- Klink said his natural reaction was to look down and to his right, averting his eyes from the sudden glare. When he looked up an instant later, he saw Lifson.
- Though he applied his brakes, Klink was unable to avoid Lifson as he saw her for only a fraction of a second before running into her.
In the original trial, the jury found the city was 15 percent negligent in Lifson’s death, and Klink was 85 percent responsible. However, the court instructed the jury to determine if Klink had been confronted with an emergency situation not of his own making and if so, had he acted reasonably.
The jury found Klink not negligent and dismissed the action against him, and the appellate court agreed, saying the emergency doctrine instruction was properly given to the jury. The appellate court said there was evidence that the sun glare was a sudden and unforeseen occurrence.
NY State Court of Appeals said emergency doctrine didn’t apply
The case against Klink was referred to the New York State Court of Appeals last October 13, and they disagreed with the earlier findings of the appellate court. The Court of Appeals found that:
- Klink was about to turn left, which happened to be towards the west, at a time of day the sun would be setting in late February.
- The court said it should be well known that the sun can interfere with a driver’s vision as it nears the horizon, and especially when someone is facing towards the west.
- As such, the sun glare which momentarily blinded Klink could not be considered sudden and unexpected, as would be required if emergency doctrine was to be invoked.
- While the court conceded that sun glare can sometimes generate an emergency situation, under the circumstances of the Lifson case, sun glare could not constitute an emergency that would qualify a claim of emergency doctrine.
The court therefore found that the appellate court made an error in giving emergency instruction to the original trial jury.
Don’t Use Excuses – Stop if the Sun is in Your Eyes
It appears that all too often, the “sun glare was in my eyes” excuse is used as a convenient means of covering up what is really a case of driver negligence. In a large number of cases that have gone to court, desperate drivers are using sun glare to explain how they managed to hit a child, ran into the back of another car, ran a red light or T-boned a motorcyclist.
More often than not, an investigation into the real cause of the accident will find that something else distracted the at-fault driver; something like a cell phone call or text message, or checking the rear view mirror while combing their hair or applying make-up instead of checking the traffic around them. The question would have to be asked—If you couldn’t see where you were going, why didn’t you slow down, pull over or stop