The Rebuttable Presumption of Negligence in Rear-End Motor Vehicle Collisions in Florida

The Rebuttable Presumption of Negligence in Rear-End Motor Vehicle Collisions in Florida

Florida law provides a rebuttable presumption of negligence that attaches to the rear driver in a rear-end motor vehicle collision case.[1] This presumption can be a valuable tool in the litigation and/or resolution of motor vehicle accident claims involving rear-end collisions, however it is not absolute. The presumption of negligence on part of the defendant driver who rear-ends the plaintiff driver is not a substantive rule of law that supersedes Florida’s comparative negligence system of tort recovery. Rather, it is an evidentiary tool imposed by decisional law to facilitate a particular type of negligence case. Applicable where the evidence is insufficient to create a jury question on the relevant issues of fault.[2]

Ordinarily, plaintiff bears the burden of proof of all four elements of negligence, including: duty of care, breach of that duty, causation and damages.[3] Florida’s rebuttable presumption of negligence in rear-end motor vehicle collisions shifts this burden. In such cases, the operator of the rear vehicle bears the burden of producing evidence to contradict or to rebut the presumed negligence or explain his or her inability to avoid the collision.[4]  The reasoning behind this presumption is two-fold.  The first reason relates to practical efficiency.  It is all too often the front driver in a rear-end collision has no awareness or knowledge of what is going on behind him/her, and typically do not know what caused the rear-end driver to impact his or her vehicle.[5] Further, the rear driver is simply in a better position to know what happened, and to investigate the event.[6]  The second reason is based on public policy. Faced with potential liability, the presumption of negligence in rear-end collisions promotes public policy by requiring a rear driver to operate his or her vehicle in a reasonably safe manner to avoid collisions with vehicles in front of them.[7]

The presumption, however, is not absolute. For instance, it can be rebutted if the rear-end driver puts forth evidence establishing the lead driver’s negligence contributed to the accident.[8]  There are three general categories of affirmative explanations that may effectively rebut the presumption of a rear driver’s negligence that arises under the rear-end collision rule: (1) an abrupt and arbitrary stop in a place where it could not reasonably be expected or an unexpected change of lanes, (2) a mechanical failure, such as a sudden brake failure, that causes the rear driver to collide with the lead driver, and (3) the lead vehicle is illegally and, therefore, unexpectedly stopped.[9] To be considered sufficient to rebut the presumption, a rear driver must present, “evidence which fairly and reasonably tends to show that the real fact is not as presumed.”[10]

A failure to rebut the presumption of negligence in rear-end collision cases will lead to a determination the rear driver was the sole proximate cause of the accident. This is true where there is no evidence to sufficiently demonstrate the lead driver was negligent.[11]  In these instances, the driver of the lead vehicle is entitled to a directed verdict on the issue of liability.[12]  These principles similarly apply to passengers of the lead vehicle in a rear-end collision.[13]  Further, the presumption is available regardless of whether the driver of the rear vehicle is a party to the litigation.[14]  However, the presumption of negligence does not apply where a passenger of the rear vehicle sues the lead driver for his or her negligence.[15]

Florida was still a contributory negligence state when it adopted the rear-end presumption rule. Under contributory negligence, a negligent plaintiff could not recover against a negligent defendant.[16]  Thus, if the presumption was overcome by a rear driver defendant, the lead driver’s claim would be barred.

Florida has since become a pure comparative negligence state.   Juries are now permitted to apportion liability between a negligent plaintiff and a negligent defendant.  Under comparative negligence, where the rear driver presents evidence that fairly and reasonably rebuts the presumption of negligence, the issue of the rear driver’s negligence must then be presented to the finder of fact as an ordinary case of negligence.[17] In such situations, juries must evaluate the claims without the aid of the presumption,[18] reconcile conflicting evidence, evaluate the credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence. Today, when the rear driver sues the lead driver for damages from a rear-end collision, and the lead driver answers with the affirmative defense of comparative negligence, the rear-end collision rule will, at most, establish as a matter of law that the driver of the rear vehicle is liable for some portion of the overall damages, and if it is sufficiently demonstrated that the lead driver was negligent as well, the jury should pass upon the question of shared liability and apportionment of damages Jefferies v. Amery Leasing, Inc., 698 So. 2d 368 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997).

In essence, the presumption of negligence arising from a rear-end collision has become a naked presumption that dissipates upon the introduction of evidence reflecting due care.[19] In such cases, the presumption is reduced to the status of a permissible inference that the jury may or may not draw from the evidence after reconciling conflicts, evaluating the credibility of witnesses, and assessing the weight of the evidence.[20]

[1] Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350, 353 (Fla. 2012).

[2] Id.

[3] See Turlington v Tampa Elec. Co., 62 Fla. 398 (1911); Woodbury v. Tampa Waterworks Co., 57 Fla. 243 (1909).

[4] Ortlieb v. Butts, 849 So. 2d 1165 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003); Ferguson v. Disalvo, 775 So. 2d 414 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001); Clampitt v. D.J. Spencer Sales, 786 So. 2d 570 (Fla. 2001); Eppler v. Tarmac America, Inc., 752 So. 2d 592 (Fla. 2000)Dania Jai-Alai Palace, Inc. v. Sykes, 450 So. 2d 1114 (Fla. 1984).

[5] See Jeffreies v. Amery Leasing, Inc. 698 So. 2d 368, 370-71 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997)(explaining that “[a] plaintiff ordinarily bears the burden of proof of all … elements of negligence” but that “obtaining proof of … breach and causation [] is difficult” in rear-end collision cases because although the “driver who has been rear-ended knows that the [other] driver rear-ended him,” he or she “usually does not know why”).

[6] See generally, Eppler v. Tarmac America, Inc. 752 So. 2d 592, 594 (Fla 2000) (explaining the origins of the rear-end presumption)

[7] Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d at 362, n19 “…drivers on Florida’ roadways owe a duty of reasonable care not only to those driving in front of them, but also to those who are following … as a matter of public policy, we want all drivers to obey all traffic laws, not just the prohibition against following too closely.

[8] See Birge, 107 So. 3d at 361 (explaining that if “evidence is produced from which a jury could conclude that the front driver … was negligent [or’ comparatively at fault …, the presumption is rebutted and the issues of disputed fact regarding negligence and causation should be submitted to the jury’)

[9] Alford v. Cool Cargo Carriers, Inc., 936 So. 2d 646 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006).

[10] Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles v. Saleme, 963 So. 2d 969 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007); Marcelleus v. Cronan, 963 So. 2d 364 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007)

[11] Charron v. Birge, 37 So. 3d 292 (Fla. 5th DCA 2010), decision approved, Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350 (Fla. 2012).

[12] Sorel v. Koonce, 53 So. 3d 1225 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011); Stewart v. Scribner, 390 So. 2d 88 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980).

[13] Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350 (Fla. 2012).

[14] Id.

[15] Charron v. Birge, 37 So. 3d 292 (Fla. 5th DCA 2010), decision approved, Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350 (Fla. 2012).

[16] See Shayne v. Saunders, 176 So. 495, 498 (Fla. 1937); Stephens v. Dichtenmueller, 207 So. 2d 718 (Fla. 4th DCA 1968), quashed on other grounds, 216 So. 2d 448 (Fla. 1968).

[17] Servello & Sons, Inc. v. Sims, 922 So. 2d 234 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005).

[18] Jiminez v. Faccone, 98 So. 3d 621 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012); Seibert v. Riccucci, 84 So. 3d 1086 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012); Itiat v. Foskey, 28 So. 3d 140 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010); Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350 (Fla. 2012); Eppler v. Tarmac America, Inc., 752 So. 2d 592 (Fla. 2000).

[19] .[19]  Alford v. Cool Cargo Carriers, Inc., 936 So. 2d 646 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); D.J. Spencer Sales v. Clampitt, 704 So. 2d 601 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997), as amended on other grounds, (Feb. 19, 1998) and quashed on other grounds, 786 So. 2d 570 (Fla. 2001).

[20] Alford v. Cool Cargo Carriers, Inc., 936 So. 2d 646 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); McCloud v. Swanson, 681 So. 2d 898 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996); Gulle v. Boggs, 174 So. 2d 26 (Fla. 1965).

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