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May 30, 2013

Shiner v. Ralston: The Superior Court Re-affirms and Explains the Defense of a Sudden Medical Emergency

            In Shiner v. Ralston, 2013 Pa. Super. 33 (2/22/2013), two men were involved in an automobile accident on May 17, 2007 in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Glenn Shiner was operating a Ford Taurus and Ralph W. Ralston, Sr., who died in the accident, was operating a pickup truck leased to his employer, General Parts Company by Suntrust Leasing Corporation. Ralston was travelling southbound when his vehicle left its lane of travel, crossed over the grassy median and across the northbound rumble strip, striking Shiner’s automobile. The evidence revealed that Ralston took no evasive maneuvers and did not attempt to avoid the collision. Shiner was injured and brought suit against the Ralston estate, General Parts Company and Suntrust Leasing (“appellees”).

            An accident reconstruction expert and forensic pathologist retained by appellees determined that there was no physical evidence that would establish any control of the vehicle after Ralston left the southbound lane of travel. The post-mortem examination confirmed that Ralston suffered a cardiac dysrhythmia prior to the collision, causing him to lose consciousness and control of his vehicle. In response to the complaint for damages, the appellees denied negligence, but did not affirmatively plead that Ralston suffered a sudden medical emergency or unconsciousness. However, after discovery, the appelles were granted summary judgment by the trial court on the basis that the collision resulted from a “sudden and unforeseeable medical condition,”and therefore, the court agreed that as a matter of law, the appellees were released from liability under the sudden emergency doctrine.

            The Superior Court reversed the grant of summary judgment determining that the trial court had inappropriately intertwined the “sudden emergency doctrine” and the “sudden medical emergency defense.” The Superior Court explained the differences of the two doctrines. The Superior Court, citing Lockhart v. List, 665 A.2d 1176 (Pa. 1995), explained that the sudden emergency defense was a “legal principle” that provided for only a reduced standard of “degree of care” when a person was presented with a sudden and unexpected circumstance. Further, it is not an affirmative defense required to be plead as New Matter under Pa.R.C.P. 1030(b) because, unlike a true affirmative defense, the sudden emergency doctrine does not relieve a person from the responsibility to act, but rather, provides mitigation for the conduct of a driver with little or no time to react to unexpected circumstances.

            As of the time the court was considering this case, there were no Pennsylvania appellate decisions recognizing the defense of a sudden medical emergency, other than the Supreme Court case of Bass v. Commonwealth, 401 A.2d 1133 (Pa. 1979),where it was acknowledged that “where non-negligent conduct results in injury to another, it is not actionable.”The Superior Court recognized that the defense of a sudden medical emergency, often couched as the defense of incapacitation or sudden unconsciousness, precludes a finding of negligence. Because the sudden medical emergency defense precludes a finding of negligence, as opposed to the sudden emergency doctrine that only reduces the “degree of care,” it is considered an affirmative defense that must be plead as New Matter and the person asserting the defense has the burden of proof.

In reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the Superior Court acknowledged that as appellees had not specifically pled the sudden medical emergency defense in their New Matter, the defense had been waived. Finding that Ralston’s loss of consciousness rendered him incapable of any judgment, the trial court determined that no reasonable care could be expected and that sudden emergency doctrine placed the burden on the Shiners to disprove the loss of consciousness was sudden and unexpected. The Superior Court determined that it was improper to shift the burden of proof to the plaintiff and, from the review of the record, the appellees had not met their burden on summary judgment to show that the event was unforeseen in such a manner that reasonable minds could not differ. The Superior Court determined that although the evidence was that Ralston had never been previously treated for cardiac symptoms, did not mean that he had not experienced any symptoms. The medical records produced did not support the appellees’ burden especially since the Shiners produced contradictory medical evidence that raised material issues of fact for a jury to decide at trial. The Superior Court similarly dismissed the testimony of Ralston’s family that he suffered from no cardiac symptoms as impermissible under the Nanty-Glo rule to support the grant of summary judgment.

What It Means to You

This case affirms the federal court’s recognition and application of an “unconscious” defense and provides the parameters for asserting a sudden medical emergency defense and proofs necessary to prevail. Primary to asserting the defense, if conditions so warrant, the “sudden medical emergency” defense must be pled as an affirmative defense or the defense will be waived.