Florida’s Fifth District Rules in Auto Accident Appeal

car-crash-1-1512737It’s often difficult for a driver who rear-ends another vehicle to avoid some form of liability. Indeed, although many other types of car accidents can occasion genuine discussion about apportioning fault between parties or determining whether a particular driver was in fact negligent, accidents involving one car rear-ending another almost invariably lead to liability for the driver who strikes the other in the back. In fact, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently reversed part of a trial verdict that, in its judgment, inappropriately apportioned fault to the driver in a stationary vehicle that was rear-ended by another.

As noted above, this case, Bodiford v. Rollins, arose from a rear-end collision. The plaintiff was waiting to make a left turn at an intersection when the defendant’s car rammed into the back of his vehicle. The plaintiff sustained serious injuries as a result and brought suit against the driver of the other vehicle. The case proceeded to trial, after which the jury awarded the plaintiff more than one million dollars in damages. However, the jury also found the plaintiff to be 13% at fault, and the court reduced the damages award by that percentage. The defendants appealed, asserting various arguments against the jury’s ruling. In addition, the plaintiff cross-appealed, asserting that the jury erred in apportioning any fault to him and that the trial court, therefore, should have granted his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Although the Fifth District Court of Appeal ultimately vacated part of the trial court’s ruling, it was not a part of the ruling for which the defendant likely hoped. Indeed, the Fifth District summarily dismissed the defendant’s arguments, finding that his contentions about the propriety of the jury’s ruling were without merit. Instead, the Fifth District focused on whether it was appropriate for the jury to apportion fault to the plaintiff and for the trial court to deny the plaintiff’s motion seeking that the apportioning be overturned notwithstanding the verdict.

Florida is a comparative negligence state, meaning that when a plaintiff is partially negligent for the event leading to his or her injury, the jury can apportion blame between the parties, offsetting the defendant’s liability. However, the apportionment of liability depends on the defendant proving that the plaintiff was in fact negligent. Here, the plaintiff argued that there was no evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that he had been negligent. Indeed, the evidence showed that the plaintiff’s car was stationary at the time of the accident, and there was no indication that he was violating a driving rule or otherwise acting negligently while waiting for an opportunity to turn. Accordingly, the Fifth District sided with the plaintiff and found that no reasonable jury could have found him negligent under the circumstances. Therefore, the trial court should have granted the plaintiff’s motion seeking that part of the jury’s verdict be overturned as a matter of law. As a result, the plaintiff will be able to recover the full scope of damages found by the jury.

Although the jury is typically the final arbiter of liability, this case shows that a jury can sometimes get it wrong. In light of the possible financial consequences, any litigant should be prepared for the unlikely event of a jury makes an erroneous finding. Indeed, this plaintiff ultimately kept more of his recovery by convincing the appellate court of the jury’s and trial court’s errors. Although adjudicating an auto negligence case seems like a straightforward endeavor, the guidance of knowledgeable counsel can help when the situation becomes murky. The South Florida auto accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured South Florida drivers and are prepared to give you the benefit of their zealous advocacy. If you’ve recently been injured in a case of possible auto accident negligence and are interested in your legal options, feel free to contact us to set up a free case evaluation.

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