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The Medical Emergency Defense in Car Accident Claims: A Guide for New York State

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Peter J. Gregory
Apr 2, 2024
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Automobile accidents are a significant concern in New York State, leading to countless personal injury claims each year. Amid these disputes, one defense that occasionally surfaces is the "medical emergency defense." This legal argument can profoundly impact the outcome of car crash claims, offering an avenue for defendants to argue their non-liability. This brief guide outlines the intricacies of the medical emergency defense in the context of New York State's personal injury law landscape, offering insight for both potential plaintiffs and defendants in car accident claims.

Understanding the Medical Emergency Defense

The medical emergency defense is a legal argument used by defendants in car accident cases, claiming that the accident was caused by a sudden, unforeseen medical emergency that rendered the driver incapable of controlling their vehicle. This defense asserts that the defendant's loss of control was not due to negligence but to an unexpected medical condition, thereby exempting them from liability for injuries that result from the accident. In New York State, the acceptance of this defense hinges on demonstrating that the medical emergency was unforeseeable and directly led to the accident. The defendant must provide substantial evidence, often including medical records and expert testimony, to substantiate their claim. This evidence must show that the defendant had no prior warning of the impending medical issue and that a reasonable person in the same situation could not have anticipated the emergency.

Key Elements of the Defense

For the medical emergency defense to apply in New York courts, several criteria must be met:

  1. Suddenness: The medical condition must have arisen abruptly, leaving no time for the driver to take preventive action.
  2. Unforeseeability: The defendant must prove that there was no reasonable way to predict the medical emergency based on their medical history or previous symptoms.
  3. Causation: There must be a direct link between the medical emergency and the accident, demonstrating that the emergency was the sole cause of the incident.

Implications for Car Accident Claims

The acceptance of a medical emergency defense can significantly alter the trajectory of a personal injury claim. If successfully proven, it can lead to the dismissal of the case against the defendant, as it establishes a lack of negligence, which is a core requirement for liability in personal injury claims. Plaintiffs facing this defense must be prepared to challenge its validity, potentially requiring extensive medical expert testimony and investigative work to disprove the defendant's claims.

Challenges and Considerations

One of the primary challenges in invoking the medical emergency defense is the burden of proof resting on the defendant. Medical emergencies are inherently difficult to predict, and establishing the unforeseeability of an event requires a thorough examination of the defendant's detailed medical history. This scrutiny can raise privacy concerns and necessitate a delicate balancing act between legal requirements and personal confidentiality.

Notably, the defense is not applicable in situations where the defendant had prior knowledge of a medical condition that could lead to an emergency if not properly managed. For instance, if a driver suffers a seizure leading to an accident but had previously been diagnosed with a seizure disorder and advised against driving, the medical emergency defense would likely fail due to the foreseeability of the event.

Legal and Ethical Implications

The medical emergency defense raises important legal and ethical questions, particularly regarding the responsibility of individuals to assess their fitness to drive. It prompts a broader discussion on how society balances individual rights and public safety, especially considering the increasing prevalence of chronic health conditions that could impair driving ability. Furthermore, the defense underscores the critical role of medical professionals in advising patients about the potential impact of their health conditions on driving. It also highlights the importance of individuals taking proactive steps to understand and manage their health risks, especially when engaging in activities that could endanger others.


The medical emergency defense represents a unique intersection between law, medicine, and ethics. In New York State, its application in car accident personal injury claims requires a nuanced understanding of legal standards, a rigorous evaluation of medical evidence, and a careful consideration of ethical implications. For those involved in car accident litigation, whether as plaintiffs or defendants, understanding this defense is crucial. It not only influences the strategy and outcome of individual cases but also contributes to the ongoing dialogue about responsibility, safety, and justice on the roads of New York.

As we navigate the complexities of car accident claims and defenses like the medical emergency defense, it's essential to seek the guidance of experienced legal professionals. They can provide invaluable insights, represent interests effectively, and navigate the intricate pathways of the legal system to achieve fair and just outcomes.

If you or a loved one has suffered injuries in a car accident, it is imperative to consult with a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer who can navigate the legal complexities and help you secure the compensation you deserve. Remember, time is of the essence, so don't delay in seeking legal advice to protect your rights and ensure a smoother path towards recovery.

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About the author: Peter J. Gregory is a partner with MCCM Personal Injury Lawyers in Rochester, NY.  He is a trial lawyer with extensive experience resolving disputes in state and federal trial courts. As a personal injury lawyer, Gregory focuses on advising clients who have been injured or lost loved ones in accidents caused by the carelessness or recklessness of others. Please feel free to contact him directly at or (585) 512-3506.

This publication is intended as an information source for clients, prospective clients, and colleagues and constitutes attorney advertising. The content should not be considered legal advice and readers should not act upon information in this publication without individualized professional counsel.

About MCCM

McConville Considine Cooman & Morin, P.C. is a full-service law firm based in Rochester, New York, providing high-quality legal services to businesses and individuals since 1979.  With over a dozen attorneys and a full paralegal support staff, the firm is well-positioned to right-size services tailored to each client. We are large enough to provide expertise in a broad range of practice areas, yet small enough to devote prompt, personal attention to our clients.

We represent a diverse range of clients located throughout New York State and New England.  They include individuals, numerous manufacturing and service industry businesses, local governments, and health care professionals, provider groups, facilities and associations. We also serve as local counsel to out-of-state clients and their attorneys who have litigation pending in Western New York courts.  For more information, please contact us at 585.546.2500.