Woman who lost consciousness while driving not liable for motorist’s negligence claim, COA affirms

A woman who said she lost consciousness while driving before causing a serious accident demonstrated that her medical emergency was unforeseeable, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed, upholding a summary judgment ruling in favor of the woman on a negligence claim.

The case of Walter E. Patrick, III v. April J. Henthorn, 21A-CT-1436, dates back to 1975, when then-12-year-old April Henthorn was diagnosed with a protein allergy known as an OTC deficiency. Henthorn takes medication for her condition and limits her protein intake — if she eats too much protein, she gets “an extremely bad headache that won’t go away” and can also become dizzy and lightheaded.

One day in August 2017, Henthorn was driving north toward Indianapolis when she lost control of her vehicle, struck another vehicle, continued on, then struck Walter Patrick’s vehicle. Patrick was injured in the accident, resulting in more than $50,000 in medical bills.

Patrick filed a negligent complaint against Henthorn, but Henthorn argued she had lost consciousness due to a “sudden emergency not of [her] own making.” She filed for summary judgment, asserting her loss of consciousness was not foreseeable.

To support her argument, Henthorn designated an affidavit saying she was feeling fine prior to the accident, but seconds before it happened, she “suddenly and unexpectedly felt light-headed, flushed and dizzy.” She then blacked out, according to the affidavit, and wound up stopped near an intersection and next to a telephone pole. She claimed to have no memory of the crash.

Henthorn also submitted an affidavit from Dr. Bryan Hainline, who had treated her OTC deficiency since 1989. He opined that Henthorn had “suffered from a sudden change in mental status with loss of consciousness prior to the collision that had resulted from an unforeseen elevation in her blood ammonia levels due to OTC deficiency,” causing her to “become incapacitated just before losing control of her car and crashing.”

In a subsequent deposition, Patrick asked Henthorn how her condition had affected her “in the past,” including how many “episodes” of lightheadedness she had experienced. Henthorn indicated she hadn’t had an “episode” in more than 10 years.

When asked later in the deposition about the actual accident, Henthorn recalled going to work and feeling fine, but later experiencing “a really sharp pain on the left side.” The last thing she remembered, she said, was putting her hand up to her head, then waking up next to the telephone pole. She also said she remembered going through the intersection but not striking any vehicles or speaking with law enforcement.

Patrick then filed a response in opposition to Henthorn’s summary judgment motion, claiming Henthorn’s statements in her deposition were inconsistent with the designated evidence, particularly her statement that she had not had episodes of lightheadedness or loss of consciousness in 10 years.

But the Johnson Superior Court ruled in Henthorn’s favor, finding that “it is the reasonable interpretation that her answer was addressing any other episodes of loss of consciousness besides the one in question.” The trial court also determined Henthorn’s “sudden physical incapacity” was not reasonably foreseeable.”

The trial court then denied Patrick’s motion to correct error, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

“Here, neither Henthorn’s symptoms nor her memory of the accident would affect the outcome of the case,” Judge Edward Najam wrote in a Thursday opinion. “In other words, whether she was hot, dizzy, light-headed, or some combination thereof, or whether she remembered some or none of the accident, does not create a genuine issue of material fact on the dispositive issue — whether she suffered a medical emergency.

“… (T)he designated evidence shows, and Patrick does not dispute, that Henthorn’s condition had been well controlled, that she did not have any driving restrictions, and that she felt healthy on the morning of the accident, which demonstrates that her sudden physical incapacity was not reasonably foreseeable,” Najam continued, citing Denson v. Estate of Dillard, 116 N.E.3d 535 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018). “Because the designated evidence demonstrates that Henthorn suffered a medical emergency which was not reasonably foreseeable, Henthorn has affirmatively negated one element of Patrick’s negligence claim.

“We therefore hold that the trial court did not err when it entered summary judgment in favor of Henthorn,” the COA concluded.

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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