Lopez v. U.S. – Presumption of Negligence in Rear-End Crashes

Rear-end collisions are some of the most common on the roadway. Most occur because drivers don’t pay attention and travel too fast for conditions, failing to maintain enough distance between their vehicle and the one ahead. crashedbumper1

That’s why there is a presumption of negligence on the part of the tail-end driver.

But this presumption is not infallible. In fact, three years ago, the Florida Supreme Court took on this issue in Cevallos v. Rideout and rejected the 4th District Court of Appeal’s finding of presumptive negligence in a rear-end crash. The court determined a rear driver can rebut the presumption of negligence by producing evidence to show negligence on the part of the front driver.

Defendants in traffic crash cases have been using this ruling frequently to, at the very least, assert comparative fault that will reduce overall damages to those injured.

A rear driver could successfully refute the presumption of negligence by showing:

  • There was a mechanical failure in the rear vehicle.
  • Front driver stopped both suddenly and unexpectedly.
  • Front driver was illegally stopped in the roadway.

Again, it’s not enough that the front driver stopped suddenly. It must also be unexpected. For example, a driver may stop suddenly for a traffic signal, but this is not unexpected. It would, however, be unexpected if a driver traveling on the highway suddenly stopped in the middle of traffic.

But as the case of Lopez v. U.S. reveals, these cases are going to be weighed on a fact-specific basis. In this case, out of California, a driver stopped suddenly in front of a postal truck as the vehicles approached an intersection. Yet when the passenger of the smaller vehicle sued the U.S. government (for vicarious liability as the employer of the postal truck driver), both the lower court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined the government was not at-fault – even though the postal truck driver had struck the other car from the rear.

Here’s what happened:

Both vehicles were traveling in the same direction as they approached a traffic signal. Just beyond that traffic signal was a cluster of construction, and the lane in which passenger vehicle was traveling ended, so vehicles had to merge quickly.

Passenger vehicle driver, noting this problem, later testified that she quickly changed lanes ahead of the traffic signal and then braked. She conceded she did not check her rear-view mirror before changing lanes or braking.

The postal truck driver told responding police officer the other vehicle cut him off, and he didn’t have enough time to stop. The officer found this account credible, as there had been a number of other similar accidents at that location.

When the case went to trial, jurors determined that when plaintiff’s vehicle driver abruptly swerved and then stopped in front of the truck driver, this action deprived the truck driver of both the time and distance necessary to avoid crashing.

In effect, defendant (the government) successfully rebutted the presumption of negligence.

Usually, plaintiffs in rear-end crash lawsuits do have the advantage. However, that does not mean it’s going to necessarily be an easy win. That’s why it’s important to consult with an experienced attorney.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Lopez v. U.S. , June 26, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Trucking Accident Lawsuit Settled Between Tracy Morgan, Wal-Mart, June 14, 2015, Naples Truck Accident Attorney Blog