Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal Examines Rear-End Collision Presumption

Under Florida law, it is presumed in rear-end collision cases that the driver of the rear vehicle was negligent. Although this presumption can be a useful tool for litigants, the presumption is not absolute, and those seeking to make recourse to this presumption must be able to show that no possible negligence on their part contributed to the collision. Questions regarding the application of this rear-end collision presumption were at the core of a recent decision from the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Padilla v. Schwartz, involving a rear-end collision on the Florida Turnpike.

As stated above, the accident at issue occurred along a stretch of the Florida Turnpike where construction was taking place. The plaintiff was driving on the turnpike when he struck the back of a vehicle being operated by the defendant. At his deposition, the plaintiff testified that he was driving within the speed limit and that he did not observe any vehicles near him until immediately before the collision. The plaintiff further testified that only shortly before the accident did he see the defendant’s vehicle, which he asserted appeared suddenly before him, and that although he applied his brakes, it was not enough to avoid striking the rear of the defendant’s vehicle. Following the accident, the plaintiff brought a negligence lawsuit against the defendant. At the conclusion of discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment, asserting that he was entitled to the rear-end collision presumption and that the plaintiff had failed to adduce evidence to rebut the presumption that his negligence, rather than the defendant’s, caused the accident. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

Florida law provides that “there is a rebuttable presumption of negligence that attaches to the rear driver in a rear-end motor vehicle collision case.” Birge v. Charron, 107 So. 3d 350, 353 (Fla. 2012). The law provides for this presumption because those who have been struck from behind do not typically know what caused the rear-end driver to hit his or her vehicle. See Jefferies 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”). This presumption may, however, be rebutted if the rear-end driver puts forth evidence establishing that the leading driver’s negligence contributed to the accident. 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”).

Upon reviewing the record, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was in error and reversed. As noted above, if a rear-end driver—in this case, the plaintiff—puts forth evidence sufficient to create an issue of fact regarding the other driver’s contributory negligence, the rear-end collision presumption should not be applied. See Birge, 107 So. 3d at 361. In this action, the Fourth District noted the plaintiff’s uncontroverted deposition testimony related to the sudden appearance of the defendant’s vehicle and the defendant’s driving. The Fourth District concluded that if this testimony were believed, a reasonable jury could find that the defendant impermissibly invaded the plaintiff’s lane and therefore negligently contributed to the crash. See. e.g., Alford v. Cool Cargo Carriers, Inc., 936 So. 2d 646 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006) (concluding that rear-end collision presumption did not apply because there was conflicting testimony related to whether the leading vehicle suddenly changed lanes and was traveling at a low rate of speed). Since the plaintiff’s rear-end collision did not fall within the purview of the rear-end collision presumption, and the evidence was otherwise sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to both parties’ fault, the Fourth District ruled that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment.

Given the frequency of and particular evidentiary challenges associated with motor vehicle accident cases, the rear-end collision presumption is just one of the many that may be typically invoked in the standard motor vehicle negligence case. However, presumptions are not absolute, and potential litigants should consider finding experienced counsel who can help them navigate the various evidentiary hurdles that these beneficial or unfavorable presumptions may present. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Frankl Kominsky Injury Lawyers have provided zealous representation to many injured Florida drivers, and they are ready to help you with a potential motor vehicle negligence claim. Indeed, if you believe you’ve been injured in a possible case of motor vehicle negligence and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a complimentary case consultation.

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