Rear Ended Vehicle Most Often Wins Liability/Fault Question

In order to recover damages in an injury case, the injured party must prove both liability and damages. That means to win your case in court, you must prove both by the greater weight of the evidence. If the injured victim cannot prove liability, that is who is at fault for causing the injury, the jury does not even consider damages. In the stage of the case prior to filing a lawsuit, the insurance adjustor will evaluate both liability and damages, and if a lawsuit is filed, defense attorneys will ordinarily contest both liability and damages.

The most straightforward fact pattern in an automobile crash is the rear end collision. In these crashes, there is a rebuttable presumption the rear driver is at fault. That is, the analysis starts with a presumption that if a driver allows her vehicle to crash into the rear of the vehicle in front, the law presumes the rear driver was negligent. The rear driver can attempt to bring out facts that “rebut” or refute this presumption by showing one of four things: (1 the crash was caused not by driver error, but by a mechanical issue with the vehicle; 2) the front or lead driver made a sudden stop at a location where a sudden stop would not ordinarily be expected; 3) the lead driver made a sudden lane change without any emergency situation forcing that driving action; or 4) that the lead driver made an illegal or improper stop. Again, a sudden stop alone is insufficient to rebut the presumption of negligence. Rather, the rear driver must prove the sudden stop was at a time and place where a reasonable person would not expect a sudden stop. For instance, a rear driver claiming the injured party made a sudden stop in rush hour traffic on a busy road does not rebut the presumption, as the rear driver should expect sudden stops in moderate or heavy traffic.

If you sustain injuries and your case goes to trial, if the rear driver is not able to prove facts that fall into one of the 4 categories above, the trial judge will instruct the jury that the rear driver was exclusively at fault for the crash.

In March 2012, the 5th District Court of Appeals, which presides over multiple counties in central Florida, overturned a trial court’s failure find the rear vehicle at fault. The case is entitled Douglas-Siebert v. Riccucci and Tarmac. In that case, the injured party was driving south on U.S. 1. There was an SUB in front of her and the defendant was behind her. When a vehicle suddenly pulled in front of the SUV, the SUV able to stop without colliding into the car that pulled out, and the injured party was able to stop without colliding with the SUV.

At trial, the trial judge refused to instruct the jury to find for the injured party, and the jury ultimately ruled against the injured party. Thereafter, when the injured party appealed, the appellate court cited the above case and noted the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that “unfortunately, accidents on the roadway ahead are a routine hazard faced by the driving public. Such accidents are encountered far too frequently and are to be reasonably expected. Each driver is charged under the law with remaining alert and following the vehicle in front of him or her at a safe distance. In effect, the law requires all drivers to push ahead of themselves an imaginary clear stopping distance or assured stopping space or adequate zone within which the driven vehicle can come to a stop (Clampit v.Tennyson).

The 5th District Court of Appeals considered the facts and the case law and ruled the trial court judge should have found the rear driver was negligent as a matter of law, and jury never should have even considered the liability issue.

If you are the victim of a rear-end crash, the rear driver will often claim you made a sudden stop or suddenly changed lanes and are thus not at fault. However, the law is in your favor, and more often than not, the rear driver’s excuses will not hold water. As attorneys, we must be diligent in arguing these legal precedents to protect the true victims in rear-end crashes.

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