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Court removes the teeth from "assured clear distance" speed statute

Douglas Perliskey was struck and killed on I-196 at 5:30 on an August morning.  He had apparently lost control of his car during a violent rainstorm, and it was disabled in the center lane of the freeway.  Two approaching motorists were surprised by the presence of the car, and veered to avoid it.  The motorist in the left lane veered on to the shoulder where he struck Perliskey and killed him. 

The motorist who struck Perliskey was traveling between 42 and 45 miles per hour, and passing the other motorist, in a 55 mile per hour speed zone.  Perliskey's family sued, relying on the statute that requires all motorists to adjust their speed to the prevailing conditions, so that they can stop their vehicle "within the assured clear distance,"  i.e., the distance that they can see.

Ultimately, the jury found in favor of the defendants and determined that the breach of the "assured clear distance" rule was excused by the "sudden emergency rule."  The latter rule excuses a motorist who is confronted with an unusual and unsuspected situation that creates an emergency "not of the Defendant's own making."  Courts have previously held that a motorist must anticipate that obstacles will appear in a traveled road, so that fact alone, does not establish a sudden emergency.  Needless to say, enforcement of the assured-clear-distance statute, according to its exact language, would not excuse these motorists, because their inadequate reaction time was a direct result of their speed:  had they slowed to the speed required under the "assured clear distance" rule, they would not have been confronted by an emergency.

As noted previously, Courts will stretch to great lengths to enforce a jury verdict. In this case, the appellate judges cited an old case suggesting that the statute could be applied "reasonably" and not according to its precise language.  When this kind of interpretation is suggested on behalf of injury victims, it is immediately labeled "activism." Oddly, the court's opinion did not even mention that a "sudden emergency" must be "not of the defendant's making."  While the Court labored to point out that the Defendant was traveling below the speed limit, it did not acknowledge that his speed was higher than the assured clear distance would allow and the cause of the ultimate collision.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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