Florida Court Allows Drivers to Rebut Presumption of Fault in Rear-End Crashes

Florida’s high court has ruled that drivers that cause an automobile accident by striking another car from behind can still sue the other driver for damages depending on the circumstances of the accident and the other driver’s actions.

The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled [Cevallos v. Rideout No. SC09-2238] in a case that clarified several conflicting lower court rulings on the matter. At issue is to what degree can a presumption that the driver causing a rear-end automobile accident is solely responsible for damages be rebutted under Florida’s tort system.

The case originated in a 2005 accident whereby Maria Cevallos struck the back of an automobile driven by Kerri Anne Rideout. Cevallos claimed that she had been driving four car lengths behind Rideout and slowed her speed to 35 miles-per-hour, but nonetheless eventually could not help making contact with Rideout’s car.

Rideout’s car was stationary after she abruptly “slammed” into another vehicle while driving 45 miles-per-hour and talking on her cellphone.

Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals had affirmed a trial court’s ruling that barred Cevallos from suing Rideout based on the presumption that as the driver initiating the rear-end collision Cevallos had no standing in court.

The Supreme Court, however, pointed out that the Fourth District Court’s decision ran counter to other district courts that said the presumption could be rebutted under certain circumstances.

“The presumption of negligence that attaches to a rear driver in a rear-end motor vehicle collision can be rebutted or avoided by the production of evidence from which a jury could find negligence on the part of the front driver that contributed to bring about the injury-production collision,” wrote Judge Jorge Labarga.

Labarga said that given Rideout’s actions there is enough evidence to present to a jury to decide to what degree Rideout might be responsible for the accident and damages suffered by Cevallos.

The court’s reasoning behind the Cevallos decision is based on a similar case in Birge v. Charron No. SC10-1755. In that case, the court laid out the interaction of the presumption that the driver of the car initiating a rear-end accident is solely at fault with Florida’s tort system that is governed by the standards of comparative negligence.

Labarga noted that the presumption is less a legal standard than a method of resolving a legal claim when there is not enough evidence to say which driver may be at fault.

“The rear-end presumption is an evidentiary tool to facilitate a particular type of negligence case where there is an absence of a jury question on the issue of comparative fault,” wrote Labarga.

In cases where the presumption can be rebutted, the cases are then adjudicated under Florida’s comparative negligence system where a jury can decide the degree to which any driver is at fault.

“Florida’s comparative negligence system dictates that recovery be apportioned and diminished based on the comparative fault of all individuals whose negligence contributed to cause and injury,” wrote Labarga.