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Court bars “unavoidable accident” instruction

The Supreme Court of Virginia today outlawed the use of the “unavoidable accident” jury instruction in personal injury trials.

Writing for a unanimous court in Hancock-Underwood v. Knight, Justice Donald W. Lemons said, “While in the past we have permitted under rare and specific circumstances an instruction on unavoidable accident, today we join the clear trend in the states favoring exclusion of its use altogether.”

The disputed instruction tells a jury that an unavoidable accident is one that could not have been prevented with ordinary care or that occurred without negligence by either party.

The court found that instruction “merely restates the law of negligence, overemphasizes the defendant’s case, and is apt to confuse and mislead.”

Lemons’ opinion offers no room for exceptions: “[W]e hold that it is error to instruct a jury on unavoidable accident.”

By Peter Vieth

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