While the tabloids are speculating about whether Rockefeller will face criminal charges, there may be civil implications for the victims here as well. It says here that Metro North will wheel out a rarely used, but occasionally effective, defense to explain away their potential culpability for this horrible accident: the "Sudden and Unanticipated Medical Emergency Defense." What are we talking about here?
Well, Metro North in almost every scenario is responsible for the actions of Rockefeller since he was an employee acting within the scope of his employment for Metro North. If Rockefeller failed to act reasonably in operating the train, then Metro North is hit as if the agency itself was actually operating the train. This is a concept in law often referred to as 'Respondeat Superior' or vicarious liability. However, the law will not hold the individual or agency responsible if a collision, or, in this case, a train derailment, is the result of an unexpected and sudden medical emergency. The root of this defense is the feeling that it is not fair to hold someone responsible for something they can't control. How may the defense apply in this case? If Rockefeller had no notice of the medical condition sleep apnea and it is determined that the medical condition was the actual cause of the derailment then Rockefeller may not be held accountable for the derailment.
If the defense works to the benefit of Rockefelller, then it also shields Metro North from responsibility. So, pay careful attention to everything that comes out on this case and ask whether it is shaped by Metro North seeking to utilize this defense to limit their exposure.
Does this mean the victims here are without a remedy? Absolutely not. It does mean, however, that the liability battle that appeared to be a foregone conclusion may not be so simple. What are some of the issues people need to look out for? A careful and thorough review of Rockefeller's medical records are essential. They may illustrate an awareness of the sleep apnea condition or a scenario where he should have realized there was a concern and failed to act.
For example, he reports to his physician that he feels sluggish, overly tired. The physician orders some tests that may have revealed the sleep apnea condition but Rockefeller fails to follow through with the tests. In that instance, both Rockefeller and Metro North will likely be held civilly responsible for this tragedy because they would be hard pressed, under those facts, to argue that the condition was sudden and unanticipated. Another fruitful area for review is Rockefeller's employee file. Things like his application, annual physicals and work history may have important information contained in them about whether Rockefeller or Metro North had reason to be aware of this condition.
Primary care doctors for Rockefeller will almost certainly be questioned under oath about what they knew and when they learned of it. Victim advocates will also undoubtedly point to the trace amounts of drowsy inducing antihistamine in Rockefeller's system in arguing for why he should not have been operating the train that day.
This development will make the Metro North litigation worth watching. As lawyers that represent victims, we are hoping that the victims and their loved ones are treated justly and fairly. Nevertheless, the victims and their lawyers need to be vigilant when it comes to defeating this potential defense.
Block O'Toole & Murphy is a New York City personal injury law firm that takes pride in fighting for the underdog. They have won more than $750,000,000 in verdicts and settlements for their seriously injured clients. To learn more about them, please see the firm website at www.blockotoole.com. For a free consultation, please feel free to contact them at 212.736.5300.