Last year, the Florida Supreme Court made an important change to the case law governing rear-end automobile accidents. Traditionally such accidents are presumed to be the fault of the person driving the rear vehicle. This presumption exists because the driver of the forward vehicle generally can’t see what caused a rear-end collision, making it difficult for him or her to present evidence in court, and because the rear-vehicle driver is usually in the best position to avoid the accident. Therefore, since the 1950s, when a front-vehicle driver sues a rear-vehicle driver for a rear-end accident, Florida courts shift the burden of proof to the rear-end driver to rebut the presumption he or she caused the accident.
In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court addressed two cases of the rear-end presumption that produced different legal outcomes in the state’s lower appeals courts. The first case arose from a 2007 accident in Sanford. The passenger in a rear-end motorcycle, Crystal Charron, collided with an automobile driven by Warren Birge. Charron then sued Birge for damages. The trial court granted Birge summary judgment–that is, the case was not even submitted to a jury–based on the presumption that the motorcycle driver, who was not a party to the lawsuit, was at fault.
The Fifth District Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial judge’s decision to grant summary judgment. That court agreed with Charron that a jury should have heard evidence that Birge was operating his vehicle in an unsafe manner and therefore was at least partly at fault. While the presumption the motorcycle was at fault still applied, it was in fact a rebuttable presumption.
In contrast, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reached a different conclusion in a rear-end collision case heard around the same time as Charron’s lawsuit. The Fourth District’s case involved a rear-vehicle driver suing the forward-vehicle driver. The trial court ruled for the forward-vehicle driver without letting the case go to the jury. Here the appeals court agreed that was the right call. The Fourth District said it wasn’t enough for rear driver to produce evidence the forward driver was partially responsible; the presumption could only be rebutted by proving the complete absence of negligence by the rear driver.
Let the Jury Decide Fault
The Supreme Court reviewed both cases simultaneously and adopted the Fifth District’s approach over that of the Fourth District. In a pair of decisions announced in November 2012, the Supreme Court said the principles of comparative negligence should govern rear-end collisions. What this means is that it should be left for a jury to allocate fault for the accident on a percentage basis between the parties.
The Supreme Court did not abandon the presumption a rear-vehicle driver is at fault. Rather it clarified that the presumption applies in cases where the front driver sues the rear driver. It does not mean, as the Fourth District said, that the rear driver can never sue the front driver if there’s evidence the latter’s conduct contributed to the accident. The Supreme Court noted the rear-end presumption is simply an “evidentiary tool” used in a particular type of accident case. It should not be used as a mechanism to bypass the jury system when there’s evidence the forward-vehicle driver may share in the blame.
The main takeaway from the Florida Supreme Court’s decision is that if you’ve been injured in the back end of a rear-end accident, you should not be afraid to pursue a case against the driver of the forward vehicle. As with any personal injury matter it’s essential to work with an experienced automobile accident attorney who can advise you of the current state of the law and how it affects your case.