In 1958, Florida joined a handful of other states in adopting the evidentiary rule that a presumption of negligence arises against the trailing vehicle in motor vehicle crashes. See McNulty v. Cusack, 104 So.2d 785 (Fla. 2d DCA 1958) (Other jurisdictions limited the rear-end aspect of the collision to creating an inference of negligence.). Shortly thereafter, the rule was approved by the Florida Supreme Court in Bellere v. Madsen, 114 So.2d 619 (Fla. 1959). The usefulness of the rule was explained in Jefferies v. Amery Leasing, 698 So.2d 368 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997):
A plaintiff ordinarily bears the burden of proof of all four elements of negligence—duty of care, breach of that duty, causation and damages. See Turlington v. Tampa Elec. Co., 62 Fla. 398, 56 So. 696 (1911); Woodbury v. Tampa Waterworks Co., 57 Fla. 243, 49 So. 556 (1909). Yet, obtaining proof of two of those elements, breach and causation, is difficult when a plaintiff driver who has been rear-ended knows that the defendant driver rear-ended him but usually does not know why. Beginning with McNulty, therefore, the law presumed that the driver of the rear vehicle was negligent unless that driver provided a substantial and reasonable explanation as to why he was not negligent, in which case the presumption would vanish and the case could go to the jury on its merits. Gulle v. Boggs, 174 So.2d 26, 28-29 (Fla.1965); Brethauer v. Brassell, 347 So.2d 656, 657 (Fla. 4th DCA 1977). At the time when this rear-end collision rule was developed, Florida was still a contributory negligence state. Thus, if the presumption were not overcome, the following driver’s claim would be barred. Under contributory negligence, a negligent plaintiff could not recover against a negligent defendant. See Shayne v. Saunders, 129 Fla. 355, 362, 176 So. 495, 498 (1937). Stephens v. Dichtenmueller, 207 So.2d 718 (Fla. 4th DCA), quashed on other grounds, 216 So.2d 448 (Fla.1968).
As the court explained in Birge v. Charron, 107 So.3d 350, 361 (Fla. 2012), “the rear-end presumption has never been recognized as anything more than an evidentiary tool that facilitates a particular type of negligence case by filling an evidentiary void where the evidence is such that there is no relevant jury question on the issue of liability and causation.”
The presumption is not absolute. As explained in Birge, supra:
[B]ecause rear-end collision cases are substantively governed by the principles of comparative fault, we hold that where evidence is produced from which a jury could conclude that the front driver in a rear-end collision was negligent and comparatively at fault in bringing about the collision, the presumption is rebutted and the issues of disputed fact regarding negligence and causation should be submitted to the jury. Further, consistent with our prior decisions, we also hold that where the presumption of rear-driver negligence is rebutted, the legal effect of the presumption is dissipated, and the presumption is reduced to the status of a permissible inference or deduction from which the jury may, but is not required to, find negligence on the part of the rear driver. See Gulle, 174 So.2d at 29 (“When the matter goes to the jury in this posture it must be without the aid of the presumption, which has been reduced to the status of a permissible inference or deduction which the jury may or may not draw from the evidence before it.”).
We recently resolved a case involving a multi-vehicle Turnpike crash. There was uncontroverted evidence that a rear-end crash was the trigger that sent vehicles caroming around the highway. Our client’s vehicle, which was hit on the side by one of those vehicles, an SUV, was pushed off the highway and struck a tree head-on at more than 50 mph, suffering catastrophic injuries. We argued to the court that a presumption of fault should be applied to the trailing vehicle, the one that made the initial contact. However, because there was evidence that the rear-ended SUV attempted to stop suddenly on a section of the roadway where such a stop was unexpected, the court refused to grant our motion. The rear-end presumption has been applied in situations where the vehicle struck from behind has stopped suddenly, but it was on roads where sudden stops were to be expected, such as commercial districts where vehicles are pulling into and out of business establishments. The difference in our case is that the sudden stop happened on a straight stretch of the Turnpike under circumstances where a sudden stop was not reasonably expected. We were ultimately successful in proving fault against both the trailing vehicle and the rear-ended vehicle.
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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.
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