Florida's High Court Set to Tackle Scope of Rear-End Collision Presumption

In Cevallos v. Rideout, No. SC09-2238 (review granted Apr. 20, 2010), the Florida Supreme Court must determine how, or if, the rebuttable presumption that a rear-driver was the sole, proximate cause of rear-end collision applies when the rear-driver was the plaintiff.  The lower court decision is reported at 18 So. 3d 661 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009).  Oral argument took place on February 8, 2011.  Before discussing the actual case under review, it might be useful to discuss the history of Florida law on this issue and where it stands today.

HISTORY OF THE REAR-END COLLISION PRESUMPTION

The rear-end collision rule was recognized by Florida appellate courts in 1958 and approved by the supreme court shortly thereafter in 1959.  The rule arose to fill the evidentiary void created by a lead-driver’s inability to explain the reason for the rear driver’s collision with his or her vehicle.  That is, while a plaintiff ordinarily bears the burden of proving the four elements of negligence, obtaining proof of a breach and causation in a rear-end collision is difficult because while a plaintiff-driver may know he or she has been rear-ended, the plaintiff usually does not know why.

THE REBUTTABLE PRESUMPTION TODAY

 Florida law currently presumes that the driver of a rear vehicle was negligent unless that driver provides a substantial and reasonable explanation as to why he or she was not negligent, in which case the presumption would vanish and the case could go to the jury on the merits. Stated another way, there is a rebuttable presumption that the negligence of the rear driver in a rear-end collision was the sole proximate cause of the accident.  This presumption may be rebutted when the defendant produces evidence that the rear-end collision was not the result of the rear-driver’s negligence.  Florida courts have recognized three specific fact patterns which may rebut this presumption:

(1) affirmative testimony regarding a mechanical failure (e.g., brake failure);

(2) affirmative testimony of a sudden and unexpected stop or unexpected lane change by the car in front; and

(3) when a vehicle has been illegally and, therefore, unexpectedly stopped.

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