In Tennessee if an Individual Passes Out While Driving a Vehicle, are they Responsible if they Cause an Accident?

Posted on Jan 28 2014 9:28AM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Analysis:  The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently dealt with the question of the responsibility of an individual who becomes unconscious, while driving, causing an automobile accident.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals in George Smith v. General Tire and Emily Alexander, No. M2012-01446-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 2395047 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013) involved a case where a man was injured in a head-on collision.  The unconscious defendant in this case testified she did not remember anything on the day of the accident from the point she came to a red light on Gallatin Road until she woke up in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.  She had a long history of diabetes but she had never experienced a loss of consciousness prior to the accident in question.  Additionally, she had never been advised by her physician that she should not drive a vehicle.  Her treating physician testified her blood sugar level must have dropped too quickly for her to realize before she became unconscious. 


There was medical testimony submitted by both sides pertaining to the possibility of her becoming unconscious based on the medication and diagnosis of the defendant.  The Smith court found that the Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a rule that embodies how to deal with evaluating the situation where a driver suddenly loses consciousness.  This rule is as follows:


A sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity experienced while driving which is not reasonably foreseeable is a defense to a negligence action. To constitute a defense, defendant must establish that the sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity to control the vehicle was not reasonably foreseeable to a prudent person. As a result, the defense is not available under circumstances in which defendant was made aware of facts sufficient to lead a reasonably prudent person to anticipate that driving in that condition would likely result in an accident.


McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150 (Tenn. 1995).  Further, the Tennessee Supreme Court discussed that the question of “reasonable foreseeability” is essential to the resolution of this type of a case.  There are a number of specific “pertinent, non-exclusive considerations” that the court should consider including the following:


the extent of the driver's awareness or knowledge of the condition that caused the sudden incapacity; whether the driver had sought medical advice or was under a physician's care for the condition when the accident occurred; whether the driver had been prescribed, and had taken, medication for the condition; whether a sudden incapacity had previously occurred while driving; the number, frequency, extent, and duration of incapacitating episodes prior to the accident while driving and otherwise; the temporal relationship of the prior incapacitating episodes to the accident; a physician's guidance or advice regarding driving to the driver, if any; and medical opinions regarding the nature of the driver's condition, adherence to treatment, foreseeability of the incapacitation, and potential advance warnings which the driver would have experienced immediately prior to the accident.


The Tennessee Court of Appeals in the Smith case applied these factors and found the defendant was not responsible for the accident in question.  Ultimately, the plaintiff did not submit enough evidence to refute the defendant’s testimony that she became unconscious prior to the accident and that it was not foreseeable to her that this would occur.  The evidence submitted did not get the plaintiff over the threshold issue as to whether her unconsciousness was “reasonably foreseeable” to the defendant. (Smith at 6).


As a result, the answer to the question of whether someone is responsible in Tennessee for an accident if they become unconscious is simply - “it depends”.  Obviously, in this case (which is a good case to review for the specific facts and type of evidence that was presented) the court found the defendant was not responsible for the accident.  Obviously, there are circumstances that could cause the defendant to be responsible.  This issue basically turns on whether or not it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant would become unconscious, thereby causing the accident in question.


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TAGS: Negligence, Automobile/Motorcycle Liability, Defenses
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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