On January 22, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision affirming the trial court’s instruction to the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine, finding that competent evidence did not support giving the instruction. The Court then abolished the 60-year-old doctrine altogether, reasoning that its potential to mislead the jury greatly outweighs its minimal utility.

In Bedor v. Johnson, 10SC65 (Colo. 2013), it was undisputed that the defendant lost control of his car when he hit an icy patch on the road. As such, the trial court instructed the jury as follows: “A person who, through no fault of his or her own, is placed in a sudden emergency is not chargeable with negligence if the person exercises that degree of care that a reasonably careful person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances.”

The evidence presented at trial established that the defendant (1) was not specifically aware of the icy patch and that the road leading up to the ice was dry and (2) attempted to correct his course after losing control of his vehicle. However, a majority of the Supreme Court was persuaded by defendant’s testimony that he generally anticipated that the roads were likely to be icy the morning of the accident and, therefore, he was not confronted with a “sudden or unexpected occurrence.” Further, the majority ignored testimony regarding defendant’s attempt to correct his course and opined that simply losing control did not constitute a deliberate response to a sudden emergency necessary to warrant the instruction. Moreover, the Court noted that conflicting evidence indicated that the defendant may have been speeding and/or intoxicated when he lost control of his vehicle. Because the defendant may have contributed to or caused the claimed “sudden emergency” that led to the accident, the Court concluded that the totality of the evidence did not reasonably support the trial court’s decision to tender the sudden emergency instruction.

Abolishment of the Doctrine

In abolishing the sudden emergency doctrine in all negligence cases, the Court reasoned that the doctrine was of minimal utility because it was established to overcome the harsh effect of the former contributory negligence defense. While the doctrine does not conflict with Colorado’s modern comparative negligence scheme, the Court opined that the instruction unnecessarily repeats the “reasonable care under the circumstances” standard articulated in other pattern negligence instructions. The Court then assessed the instruction’s potential to mislead a jury and concluded that serious risks exist because, among other things, the instruction implies that sudden emergency situations require a reduced standard of care and improperly focuses the jury’s attention on events that transpired during and after the emergency rather than on the totality of the circumstances.

The Court’s abolishment of the sudden emergency instruction is curious because only recently it had determined that the doctrine was helpful to the jury and, as noted in the dissenting opinions, nothing has changed since its earlier pronouncements in this regard. Notably, however, under the Court’s reasoning the decision should not drastically affect the defense of cases involving sudden emergencies because the standard of care in those instances remains the same. While the instruction was important to highlight the exigent circumstances and explain how the jury should apply the standard of care in emergency situations, it remains the defendant’s duty to exercise reasonable care under those circumstances.