Who is Liable for an Accident Caused by an Unconscious Driver in Utah?

Most car accidents are caused by avoidable human errors. When a driver’s actions lead to a crash, he or she may be held liable for injuries if the victim can prove that the driver caused the accident. But who is liable when a driver causes an accident not by making a mistake, but by losing consciousness behind the wheel? And does the accident victim have a claim for compensation in a scenario where a driver has a sudden medical emergency? These legal questions were recently evaluated by the Utah Supreme Court in Lancer Insurance Co. v. Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines Inc., Janna Crane, Elizabeth Hutchison, Mette Seppi and Tiffany Thayne, as Salt Lake City bus accident lawyer Darwin Overson discusses.

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Can You Get Compensated if You Are Injured in a Crash in Utah Caused by a Driver Who Lost Consciousness?

In 2009, bus driver Debra Jarvis lost consciousness while transporting a group of high school students from a competition in Idaho back to their homes in Utah. After Jarvis fell unconscious, the driverless bus careened into a ravine and rolled onto its side. Miraculously, no one was killed in the accident. However, four of Jarvis’ passengers sustained non-fatal injuries, leading each to file a separate lawsuit against Lancer Insurance Company, the insurer for bus owner Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines Inc.

In addition to the four personal injury lawsuits, plaintiffs Elizabeth Hutchison and Janna Crane filed motions (made written requests) for partial summary judgment, a procedure that involves requesting a ruling on certain details or aspects of a case prior to trial. Citing Utah Code § 31A-22-303, which deals with motor vehicle liability coverage regulations, Crane and Hutchison asserted that Lancer Insurance Company was liable for their injuries and should, therefore, be required to provide compensation.

Specifically, the plaintiffs pointed to Utah Code § 31A-22-303(1)(a)(v), which provides that a motor vehicle liability coverage policy will “cover damages or injury resulting from a covered driver of a motor vehicle who is stricken by an unforeseeable paralysis, seizure, or other unconscious condition and who is not reasonably aware that paralysis, seizure, or other unconscious condition is about to occur to the extent that a person of ordinary prudence would not attempt to continue driving.”

The statute continues with an important point, noting that, under Utah Code 31A-22-303(1)(b), “The driver’s liability under Subsection (1)(a)(v) is limited to the insurance coverage.”

The court denied these motions, pointing to a common-law defense referred to as “sudden incapacity.” (For reference, the term “common-law” describes laws based on judicial precedent, as opposed to “statutory law,” which is based on statutes.) As the term suggests, sudden incapacity can arise in cases where a person has been abruptly incapacitated by a medical emergency, like a stroke, heart attack, or loss of consciousness. Using this defense, the bus driver would not be held personally liable, and the injury victims would be able to sue her only if they were able to show that Jarvis was at fault.

Lancer Insurance Company later filed a case in federal court against the denied motions for partial summary judgment. Lancer’s purpose for filing this case was to seek a declaration, which is also called a “declaratory judgment” – a statement meant to provide legal clarity – in order to confirm the interpretation of the statute. The United States District Court for the District of Utah conferred with the Utah Supreme Court, which ultimately determined that Utah’s statute would override the sudden incapacity defense, at least to a limited extent: only in cases where there is mandated insurance coverage. The court found that:

  • The unconscious motorist’s personal liability is restricted to the insurance coverage. Writing for the Utah Supreme Court, Associate Chief Justice Lee stated the following in his opinion: “We interpret the statute to mean what it says: A driver (and by extension her insurer) is subject to liability only up to the amount of the insurance coverage available under an applicable policy.”
  • The injury victim has an accident claim for strict liability, or liability that exists even without a finding of fault. Normally, an injury victim must prove that the other party was at fault by demonstrating specific facts about the circumstances surrounding the injury.

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Salt Lake City Personal Injury Lawyer for Auto Accident Victims

Accidents caused by the sudden loss of consciousness are uncommon compared to crashes caused by speeding, tailgating, failure to signal, and other driving errors. However, in the unlikely event that you or a loved one is injured in a crash or collision caused by an incapacitated driver, skilled legal representation is critical to maximize the value of your auto accident claim or lawsuit.

If you or a family member was hurt in a bus accident, car crash, motorcycle accident, or any other type of automotive accident in Utah, it is in your best interests to turn to a Salt Lake City car accident lawyer who has decades of legal experience handling complex personal injury litigation. Call the law offices of Overson Law at (801) 895-3143 as soon as possible to discuss your claim with personal injury attorney Darwin Overson in a free and confidential legal consultation.


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