lt's The Law
Driver in Front Might Be Liable for Rear-End Collision
I was rear ended in a car accident a while back. My insurance company paid for the damage to my car and I wasn't really hurt. Now I am being sued by the driver of the car that hit me. Everyone tells me the driver of the car hitting from behind is always liable. How can he sue me?
Florida is a comparative negligence state. That means when there is injury caused by negligence, the actions of everyone involved are reviewed to determine who was negligent and if more than one party was negligent decide what percentage of the damages were caused by that party's negligence. Florida court cases hold there is a rebuttable presumption of negligence attaching to the rear driver in a read-end motor vehicle collision.
Rebuttable presumption means that the case starts with position that the rear driver is at fault. If the rear driver produces evidence that he was not at fault or that another person's negligence contributed to the accident, it may reduce or eliminate liability of the rear driver.
The most common, successful defense of the rear driver is unexpected stop of the car in front. Those cases usually involve starting at a stop light and the front driver unexpectedly slams on the brakes. If it is determined that negligence or action of the front driver contributed to the collision, the court will determine the percentage for each party and each party will be responsible for that percentage of damages. At least that was the rule in four of Florida's five district courts of appeal.
The 4th District Court of Appeals disagreed. It concluded that the presumption of negligence attaching to a rear driver cannot be rebutted by evidence of negligence of the front driver. It also ruled that a claim for damages by a rear driver is barred as a matter of law, unless the rear driver is completely free of negligence.
In late 2012, Florida's Supreme Court settled this dispute in the case of Birge v. Charron. It began its decision by explaining in 1973, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision replacing Florida's contributory negligence rule with a pure form of comparative negligence. Under contributory negligence, if a party's damages were caused to any extent by that party's own negligence, he would be completely barred from suing or recovering from the other party. The Court found that approach unjust and by decision, replaced it with the comparative negligence rule. In so doing, the Court attempted to place responsibility for injuries proportionally on the contributing negligence of all parties. Florida's legislature subsequently codified the system of comparative negligence.
The Court explained that the presumption of rear-end driver negligence is a vanishing presumption, which can disappear in whole or part. It only bears upon the negligence of the rear driver. The court ruled that comparative negligence applied in all rear-end collision cases. As such, it also ruled that the driver of the rear car could sue the front driver for damages and the Court would apply comparative negligence in determining liability for damages.
Florida's Supreme Court made it clear that the driver or even passenger in the rear car of a rear-end collision may pursue claims for damages against the driver of the front car. That means you should be sure your insurance carrier is notified if you are served with a Summons and Complaint. Your insurance carrier should provide a defense attorney. You may also want to consider hiring your own attorney if the damages that might be awarded exceed your policy limits.
By: William G. Morris, Esquire
William G. Morris is an attorney with offices at 247 North Collier Boulevard on Marco Island, Florida. His practice covers a broad range of subjects, including civil litigation, real estate, business and corporate law, estate planning and probate, domestic relations and contracts. He writes this column periodically with respect to legal matters that frequently affect non-lawyers. The information contained in this column is not intended as legal advice and, of necessity, is generalized. For questions about specific circumstances, the reader should consult a qualified attorney.
Questions for this column can be sent to: William G. Morris, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax, (239) 642-0722 or
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