When a Medical Emergency Happens Behind the Wheel

Let’s face it: there is no ideal time to have a medical emergency. Sure, we sometimes hear amazing stories about terrible things happening at fortuitous moments, like someone suffering a seizure when a trained paramedic just happens to be nearby. But the harsh reality is that most medical emergencies happen in everyday circumstances. They happen as people go to work, do their grocery shopping, or spend time with their family. Anyone who has survived an unexpected emergency can probably tell you that there is never a convenient time.

But there is one situation that makes sudden medical emergencies particularly dangerous: when the afflicted person is behind the wheel.

Medical Emergencies on the Road

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, medical emergencies accounted for 49,868 traffic accidents between 2005 and 2007. Seizures, a condition caused by abnormal electricity in the brain, accounted for 35% of these crashes. Earlier this year, a driver’s seizure on Tampa’s Selmon Expressway lead to a fatal crash. Black outs and diabetic reactions,  like a loss of conscious from a sudden drop in blood sugar, were the other leading causes of medical emergency accidents, while heart attacks and strokes accounted for a total of 14% of these accidents.

When a driver suffers a medical emergency, it is dangerous to everyone on the roads. If a driver becomes unable to control their vehicle, they might hit another vehicle or a pedestrian, or veer off the road or into another lane. Even if other drivers are alert and defensive, they still might not have time to stop a collision caused by a sudden emergency. This means that many people can be affected, injured, or even killed by this kind of accident.

The Medical Emergency Defense

Normally, sudden medical emergencies are just that — sudden and unexpected. When this is the case, it’s clearly unreasonable to hold the driver accountable for their medical condition. For example, if an otherwise healthy person suddenly has a heart attack, the incident was not foreseeable. Therefore, it is not something they can be held liable for. In a situation like this, the driver has a medical emergency defense. This means that, even though they are technically at-fault for the accident, their medical condition may prevent them from being held liable and paying compensation for the families of the other victims.

Some Exceptions to the Defense

However, there are some strong exceptions to the medical emergency defense. Take, for example, the case of the Selmon Expressway accident in August. The driver had suffered a seizure earlier in the day, yet still made the choice to get behind the wheel. Because of her earlier seizure, the fact that she had another seizure was not entirely unforeseeable. As a result, the driver now faces three counts of manslaughter. Similarly, if a diabetic person chose to drive after not eating or drinking all day, or if  someone ignores their doctor’s commands to avoid driving following a stroke, they might not be able to use the medical emergency defense.

Staying Safe on the Roads

The thought of suffering a medical emergency and causing harm to other in the process is certainly upsetting. While there isn’t much that can be done to prevent an unexpected emergency — aside from maintaining a healthy lifestyle — there are still steps that all drivers can take.

People with medical conditions should know their symptoms, medication reactions, and limitations, and always follow their doctor’s orders. Similarly, anyone who is taking medications should be aware of any side effects or potential adverse reactions. All drivers, including those without prior health conditions, should stay alert at all times while driving. No one should drive when sleep-deprived, distracted, or under the influence of alcohol. By staying alert, a driver can potentially avoid a sudden obstacle caused by another driver.

There might never be a perfect time to have a sudden medical emergency. But if all drivers are alert and aware of their own health conditions and limitations, a medical emergency on the road might not always have such deadly consequences.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.


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