Young v. Clark, 90SC354

Decision Date09 July 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90SC354,90SC354
PartiesJohn Edward YOUNG and Patty Young, Petitioners, v. Holly CLARK, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Page 364

814 P.2d 364
10 A.L.R.5th 1074
John Edward YOUNG and Patty Young, Petitioners,
Holly CLARK, Respondent.
No. 90SC354.
Supreme Court of Colorado,
En Banc.
July 9, 1991.

Eldridge, Lindstrom & Hollo, P.C., Wade H. Eldridge, Barbara J. Lindstrom, Denver, for petitioners.

Quigley & Bruce, William C. Ritter, Denver, for respondent.

Justice VOLLACK delivered the Opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals unpublished decision, Young v. Clark, No. 89CA0421 (Colo. App. Mar. 22, 1990). The issue to be resolved is whether the trial court's submission of a "sudden emergency" instruction in this automobile collision case was improper. The court of appeals held that the trial court did not err by so instructing the jury. We affirm.


This case arose from a rear-end collision on February 6, 1987, at approximately 10:30 a.m. The plaintiff, John Young (Young), and the defendant, Holly Clark (Clark), were both travelling eastbound in the center lane on Colorado Highway 36. Construction on the highway caused all traffic to slow to an estimated thirty-five to forty-five miles per hour. One unidentified driver, who was four to five cars ahead of Young, pulled out of the center lane into the right-hand lane and then swerved abruptly back into the center-lane traffic, forcing all drivers behind him to apply their brakes. At that time, Clark had looked over her shoulder while attempting to change lanes. Her passenger, Susan Baldwin, yelled to Clark upon seeing that all traffic ahead had stopped. Clark applied her brakes and swerved to the left, but was unable to avoid colliding with the rear of Young's car.

Page 365

Young filed suit against Clark on June 11, 1987, claiming that he sustained personal injuries as a result of the accident that was caused by Clark's negligent operation of her car. Young's complaint was later amended to add a loss of consortium claim on behalf of Young's wife. Clark denied that she was negligent and designated the unidentified driver as a nonparty, claiming that he was responsible for causing the accident.

The trial court submitted the issues of Clark's negligence, John Young's contributory negligence, and the negligence of the designated nonparty to the jury. Included in the court's instructions to the jury was an explanation of the "sudden emergency" doctrine. The trial court submitted this instruction over the objection of the Youngs' attorney based on its finding that the sudden emergency doctrine remained valid under Colorado law and that the instruction served both parties "because both were confronted with the same sudden emergency."

The jury found that the Youngs' injuries were not caused by any negligence on Clark's part, and consequently never determined whether John Young was negligent or whether the nonparty driver was negligent. The court of appeals held that the trial court did not err by instructing the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine. We granted certiorari to determine whether the trial court's submission of a "sudden emergency" instruction was improper, either under the circumstances of this particular case, or because the instruction should no longer be given.


The sudden emergency doctrine was developed by the courts to recognize that a person confronted with sudden or unexpected circumstances calling for immediate action is not expected to exercise the judgment of one acting under normal conditions. See W.P. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 33, at 196 (5th ed.1984) [hereinafter Prosser and Keeton ].

[T]he basis of the special rule is merely that the actor is left no time for adequate thought, or is reasonably so disturbed or excited that the actor cannot weigh alternative courses of action, and must make a speedy decision, based very largely upon impulse or guess. Under such conditions, the actor cannot reasonably be held to the same accuracy of judgment or conduct as one who has had full opportunity to reflect, even though it later appears that the actor made the wrong decision, one which no reasonable person could possibly have made after due deliberation.

Id. The doctrine does not, however, impose a lesser standard of care on a person caught in an emergency situation; the individual is still expected to respond to the situation as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances. The emergency is merely a circumstance to be considered in determining whether the actor's conduct was reasonable. Id. at 196-97. See also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 296(1) comment b (1977) ("Among the circumstances which must be taken into account is the fact that the actor is confronted with [a sudden] emergency...."). Thus, a person may be found negligent if his actions are deemed unreasonable, despite the emergency. Prosser and Keeton § 33, at 197. The sudden emergency doctrine is available in a number of emergency situations and is used by both plaintiffs and defendants to counter charges of contributory and primary negligence. It is most commonly applied in the context of claims arising from motor vehicle accidents, as in the present case.


In this automobile collision case, the trial court submitted to the jury Colorado's pattern "sudden emergency" instruction, CJI-Civ.2d 9:10, which states: "A person who, through no fault of his or her own, is placed in a sudden emergency, is not chargeable with negligence if the person exercises that degree of care which a reasonably careful person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances." The Youngs first contend that

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the trial court erred by giving this instruction under the circumstances of this case because, they argue, the sudden emergency confronting Clark arose from a common, and thus foreseeable, traffic problem, and because Clark's own negligence caused the emergency situation. 1

This court has approved of giving an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine where sufficient evidence exists that a party acted in an emergency situation not caused by the party's own negligence. See Davis v. Cline, 177 Colo. 204, 493 P.2d 362 (1972); Cudney v. Moore, 163 Colo. 30, 428 P.2d 81 (1967); Daigle v. Prather, 152 Colo. 115, 380 P.2d 670 (1963); Stewart v. Stout, 143 Colo. 70, 351 P.2d 847 (1960); Ridley v. Young, 127 Colo. 46, 253 P.2d 433 (1953). In all of these cases, it was deemed appropriate to give a sudden emergency instruction in the context of an automobile collision.

In Davis v. Cline, 177 Colo. 204, 493 P.2d 362 (1972), an accident occurred when the defendant bus driver moved into the plaintiff's lane of traffic, forcing the plaintiff to steer sharply to the right to avoid colliding with the bus. The plaintiff subsequently struck a high curb and was thrown against the steering wheel, resulting in the aggravation of a previous back injury. This court held that the trial court committed prejudicial error by refusing to instruct the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine when there was competent evidence to justify giving the instruction. Id. at 210, 493 P.2d at 365. In so holding, the court noted that the sudden emergency doctrine "has long been recognized in Colorado as a valid principle" based on the rationale "that in an emergency there is no time for cool reflective deliberation during which alternative courses of action might be considered and explored; but rather, the situation demands [a] speedy decision based largely upon the actor's perception of the compelling circumstances." Id. at 207-08, 493 P.2d at 363-64. The court further viewed the doctrine "as an evidentiary guideline by which a trier of fact may properly apply the prudent [person] rule in evaluating the evidence of negligence being considered." Id. at 209, 493 P.2d at 364. Finally, the Davis court instructed that it was for the trier of fact to determine whether an emergency existed and, if so, whether the party's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances. Id. at 208, 493 P.2d at 364.

This court has also ruled it proper to give the sudden emergency instruction in automobile accidents involving a rear-end collision, as in the present case. In both Daigle v. Prather, 152 Colo. 115, 380 P.2d 670 (1963), and Cudney v. Moore, 163 Colo. 30, 428 P.2d 81 (1967), the evidence indicated that the defendants each experienced brake failure while attempting to stop their vehicles prior to hitting the rear-end of the plaintiffs' cars. In Daigle, the defendant testified that the suddenness of the brake failure prevented her from using her emergency brake or from veering to the left or right, and in Cudney, the defendant testified that "everything went so fast" that he was unable to reach his emergency brake in time and did not have room enough to swerve around the plaintiff's car. Under these circumstances, this court found that the defendants in both cases were entitled to a sudden emergency instruction. Daigle, 152 Colo. at 119, 380 P.2d at 672; Cudney, 163 Colo. at 32, 428 P.2d at 82. See also Bartlett v. Bryant, 166 Colo. 113, 115-16, 442 P.2d 425, 426-27 (1968); Tracy v. Graf, 37 Colo. App. 323, 327, 550 P.2d 886, 890 (1976), rev'd on other grounds, 194 Colo. 1, 568 P.2d 467 (1977) ("A sudden emergency instruction in a rear-end accident case is proper where, as here, there is evidence to support that theory of defense.").

C.R.C.P. 51.1(1) states: "In instructing the jury in a civil case, the court shall use such instructions as are contained in Colorado Jury Instruction (CJI) as are applicable to the evidence and the prevailing

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law." Moreover, "[a]n instruction should not be given to the jury unless there is evidence introduced to support that instruction." Converse v. Zinke, 635 P.2d 882, 889 (Colo.1981). We conclude that, by using the approved pattern instruction in CJI-Civ.2d 9:10 to advise the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine, the trial court properly followed the prevailing law of this state favoring the...

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