July 28, 2021

Like the “unavoidable accident” defense, the “sudden emergency” doctrine has roots dating back to the early 20th century.1 The doctrine recognizes that, when a person is placed in a position of apparent peril or danger without time to consider the circumstances, and in an effort to avoid such danger steps in the way of another danger or peril, the fact that the person does not make the most judicious choice does not mean the person was negligent.2 In other words, when a person is suddenly put in peril, without having sufficient time to consider all the circumstances, the person is excused from failing to take safe measures or making an unwise choice.3 For example, if a person jumped through a store window to avoid being hit by a motor vehicle that drove onto a city sidewalk, then the person could raise a sudden emergency defense to any alleged property damage that resulted from jumping through the store window. Responsibility for the damage would pass along to the original tortfeasor—the driver of the motor vehicle. Similarly, if a driver was operating a vehicle eastbound in the inside lane of a four-lane highway and swerved into a vehicle traveling in the outside eastbound lane to avoid a head-on collision with a westbound vehicle, then the driver could raise a sudden emergency defense to excuse any alleged negligence by the driver and pass culpability on to the westbound driver.


A person who, without negligence on his part, is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with peril arising from either the actual presence or the appearance of imminent danger to himself or to others, is not expected or required to use the same judgment and prudence that is required of him in the exercise of ordinary care in calmer and more deliberate moments. His duty is to exercise only the care that ordinarily prudent person would exercise in the same situation.

If at that moment he does what appears to him to be the best thing to do, and if his choice and manner of action are the same as might have been followed by an ordinarily prudent person under the same conditions, he does all the law requires of him, although in the light of after events, it should appear that a different course would have been better and safer.4


The most recent Idaho Supreme Court opinion discussing the sudden emergency doctrine was issued in 1980.5 In the case, the plaintiff signaled an intention to turn right and moved into a parking lane, however, she hit the curb and rebounded back into the travel lane. The defendant, following behind the plaintiff, struck the plaintiff’s vehicle when it bounced back into the travel lane. The plaintiff sued on the grounds the defendant was following too closely. The defendant raised the sudden emergency doctrine as a defense. On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed a jury instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine was proper because a jury could find the defendant’s alleged negligence could be excused by a jury because it was plausible the defendant did not anticipate the plaintiff negligently operating her car into a curb and rebounding back into the lane of travel, excusing the defendant’s negligence when confronted with a “sudden emergency.”


  • It is unclear if jury instructions on the sudden emergency doctrine are still permitted in Idaho. In contrast to the unavoidable accident defense, there have been no appellate decisions eliminating sudden emergency instructions.
  • The Idaho Supreme Court has noted sudden emergency instructions ordinarily should not be given since general negligence instructions often take the defense into account.6 However, the Supreme Court’s most recent opinions addressing the defense acknowledge sudden emergency instructions remain useful in cases involving complex and nearly instantaneous circumstances.7
  • Regardless of the viability of sudden emergency instructions, the defense can still be used as part of the fact pattern analysis for determining whether an accident occurred due to the negligence of one or more parties.

Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other issues facing your company.

1 Wheeler v. Oregon R. & Navigation Co., 16 Idaho 375 (1909).

2 See id.

3 See id.

4 Morford v. Brown, 85 Idaho 480, 489, 381 P.2d 45, 50 (1963), overruled in part by Schaub v. Linehan, 92 Idaho 332, 442 P.2d 742 (1968).

5 Mann v. Gonzales, 100 Idaho 769 (1980).

6 Bills v. Busco, 97 Idaho 182, 185 (1975).

7 Id.