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December 15, 2011

"Sun Glare" Driver Not Entitled to an Emergency Doctrine Jury Instruction

In Lifson v. City of Syracuse, et al., 2011 N.Y. LEXIS 3023 (October 13, 2011), the New York State Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which permitted the defendant to use an emergency doctrine jury instruction at trial based on sun glare.

On February 29, 2000, Defendant Derek Klink, while leaving work, struck and killed Irene Lifson with his car. Klink testified that, after exiting the parking garage, he stopped at a stop sign intending to make a left-hand turn. As a result of a partially obstructed view of oncoming traffic, he had to "creep-up" in order to see the approaching vehicles. Although Klink noticed pedestrians crossing the street to his left, he testified it was clear to make the turn. When he looked back to his left, while making the turn, he was suddenly blinded by the sun. The sun's glare caused Klink to look down, and when he looked back up, the first thing he saw was Lifson. There was no evidence of Lifson darting out in front of Klink's car, or Klink traveling at an excessive speed. Klink argued that the accident occurred while he was temporarily blinded by the sun.

Irene Lifson's estate commenced an action against Klink and the City of Syracuse. At Klink's request, the jury was instructed to determine whether Klink was confronted with an emergency situation not of his own making, and if so, whether his conduct in response to the situation was that of a reasonably prudent person. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Klink and the Estate appealed. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed the finding that the evidence showed that the sun glare was a "sudden and unforeseen occurrence."

In its decision, the Court of Appeals analyzed and relied heavily upon its holding in Caristo v. Sanzone, 96 N.Y.2d 172 (2001), which states that the emergency doctrine defense should be applied in "a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct." Id. at 174.

Although Klink did not park his car in the same location everyday and did not drive this
particular route often, the Court noted he was familiar with the general area. The Court
determined that, at the time of the accident, Klink was in the process of turning west during a time of day that the sun was setting, a well-known and regular event. Although the Court found in this case that the sun glare did not qualify as an emergency situation, the Court did not rule that sun glare would never generate an emergency situation.

The Court further held that the trial court's error in giving the emergency doctrine jury instruction was not harmless. The direction permitted the jury to consider the actions of Klink under an extremely favorable standard. The Court reversed the Order of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, and the Estate's claim of negligence against Klink was reinstated.

The Court's decision in Lifson serves to limit the application of the common-law emergency doctrine in automobile cases. Moreover, it shows how a jury instruction may critically impact the outcome of a trial. 

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact any of the members of the Practice Area.

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