A car accident victim sued the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act after he was injured as a passenger in a vehicle struck from behind by a postal truck.
In Lopez v. U.S., before the U.S. court of Appeals for the Eighth District, plaintiff asserted the presumption of negligence on a driver who strikes another vehicle from behind should prevail.
But as this case revealed, sometimes it’s not always so straightforward.
It is true – in Florida as well as in many jurisdictions – there is a presumption of negligence on the rear driver in a rear-end crash. The general thinking is that even when the driver ahead brakes abruptly, the driver in the rear should have been maintaining a safe, assured clear distance.
However, this presumption can be successfully refuted because there are some exceptions.
Most notable among these exceptions:
- Evidence of mechanical failure/medical emergency by rear vehicle driver
- Evidence that driver in front made a sudden and unexpected stop or lane change
- Evidence the vehicle in front was illegally stopped in the roadway
Courts are picky about when these exceptions apply. Just because a driver ahead of you makes a sudden stop, for example, is not enough to refute the presumption. It has to be both sudden and unexpected. For example, a driver on the highway arbitrarily stops. That is both sudden and unexpected. However, if a driver makes a sudden stop at an intersection to avoid running a red light, this may be sudden, but it’s not unexpected.
In the Lopez case, driver of vehicle in which plaintiff was a passenger was proceeding toward an intersection when she realized that just past the intersection, the lane would end. In an effort to avoid having to merge quickly or stop after passing through the intersection, she reportedly “jumped” into the middle lane just before reaching the light.
However, already in that lane was a postal truck driver. He would later say the passenger car driver cut him off.
The light ahead had just turned red, and the passenger car driver slammed on her brakes. The postal truck struck the passenger car from the rear.
The car driver would later concede she hadn’t glanced in her rear view mirror before she hit the brakes.
Impact of the traffic crash did push the vehicle into the intersection, but airbags did not deploy. Although plaintiff would later characterize the vehicle as severely damaged, photos appeared to indicate only cosmetic, minor damage.
Further, responding officer indicated she believed the postal driver’s account because there had been a number of similar accidents at that intersection.
At trial, plaintiff asserted the presumption of negligence on the part of the rear driver. He argued no evidence had been presented to rebut this presumption.
However, district court rejected that argument, found plaintiff’s testimony was not credible. the officer’s testimony was believable and the car driver’s own testimony indicated she was at-fault.
Plaintiff appealed, but the federal appeals court affirmed.
Although there is a presumption of negligence in rear-end crashes, the court ruled, there were several facts presented that supported the assertion car driver had abruptly merged lanes and then stopped in front of the truck driver, therefore depriving the truck driver of the time and distance he needed to stop safely.
Thus the government, which plaintiff sought to hold vicariously liable, was not responsible for the crash or injuries.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Lopez v. U.S., June 26, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit
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