45 Cal. App. 4th 1314 (1996).
One-Sentence Takeaway: The rule that a driver is not chargeable with negligence when he or she is suddenly stricken by a physical illness that he or she had no reason to anticipate, rendering him or her unconscious, does not extend to mental illnesses.
Summary: Defendant rear-ended one vehicle and then, after leaving the scene of that accident, crashed into Plaintiffs’ car a short time later. Defendant had engaged in bizarre behavior before and after the second collision, and claimed she had lost control of her actions due to mental illness. Plaintiffs sued her for negligence.
Before trial, Defendant successfully moved for summary judgment on the ground that Plaintiffs’ injuries resulted from Defendant’s sudden, unanticipated mental disorder, and not from any negligence on her part. However, the court of appeal reversed the judgment.
The appellate court first confirmed that California follows the rule that, “one who is suddenly stricken by an illness, which he had no to anticipate, while driving an automobile, which renders it impossible to control the car, is not chargeable with negligence.” The court observed that Defendant in this case was urging the court to extend the foregoing rule to any illness, without distinction between physical and mental illness. The court of appeal declined to do so, citing the widely followed common law principle, codified by statute in California in section 41, that mentally ill and mentally disabled persons are liable for conduct that does not conform to the standards of a reasonable person. The court also found no basis for “barring mental illness as a defense to negligence but allowing sudden mental illness as a complete defense.”
The court also considered the fact that Defendant in this case had asserted a sudden onset of mental illness. She did not claim any form of brain disease, neurological condition, or other physical disorder. The court took great pains to distinguish between unforeseen physical conditions, such as a sudden heart attack or fainting, which the case law has consistently treated as negating liability, and the onset of mental illness, to which the common law continues to attach liability. The court observed that the common law distinction between mental and physical illness is reflected in the Restatement Second of Torts, sections 283 B and 283 C which provide, respectively, that “insanity or other mental deficiency” does not relieve the actor from liability for negligence, but if an actor is “ill or otherwise physically disabled” the standard of conduct to which he must conform is that of a reasonable person with a like disability.