Florida Supreme Court Rules for Rear-Ender in Crash Case

A recent Florida Supreme Court ruling may help vindicate drivers who rear-end other drivers in a fairly rare case in which the rear-ender sought damages in court.

The ruling was a win for the plaintiff involving a 2005 crash in Palm Beach County. Maria Cevallos struck Keri Ann Rideout from behind, the latter of whom had come to a sudden stop because she had struck another vehicle that was stopped in front of her on a downhill slope.

Cevallos sought damages from Rideout, but was unable to present to jurors evidence she said showed Rideout was speaking on her cell phone at the time of the crash. Cevallos was barred from doing so by the initial trial court, which deemed her negligent outright since she was the rear driver in the crash.

However, that “presumption of negligence that attached to her as a rear driver in a rear-end collision case” was improper, according to the Supreme Court, which said that the initial trial court’s decision against Cevallos, along with the Fourth District’s ruling backing it, “should not have been entered” because it was based on presumed fault that is placed on rear-enders.

Cevallos was “not the sole proximate cause of the collision,” according to the ruling, which was issued in late November.

Much of the decision centered on Florida’s pure comparative negligence system and how it played into a “rebuttable presumption” that courts in the Sunshine State have enforced, assigning complete blame to the rear driver in rear-end crashes.

Florida Case Not the Norm

Bob Passmore, a senior director with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), said that the Florida case was atypical of cases involving rear-ending in several ways.

“In most of these cases, people are stopped at lights, traffic, stop signs—but traffic is most likely,” he said in an interview with Online Auto Insurance News. “And in the huge majority of these rear-enders, usually the vehicle that is struck is stopped, but in this case, [Rideout] was stopped because she plowed into somebody else.”

Passmore also said that it is “fairly rare” that a rear-ender, like Cevallos, seeks damages in court.

“In most cases, it usually comes down to the driver who started the chain that is going to be held responsible—it’s the rule of thumb that generally applies,” he said. “But it can get complicated because I’ve even seen cases where someone backed into someone else.”

The court case won’t change much for insurance carriers providing auto insurance coverage in Florida, according to Passmore, besides affirming that in some court cases, “you can still have circumstances where someone striking you from behind can collect.”

“Insurance companies in comparative negligence states like Florida will still have to investigate each accident and determine how much fault is assigned to each party,” he said.

Contributory Versus Comparative Negligence

There are four states enforcing contributory negligence laws—Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia—along with Washington, D.C.

Under contributory negligence systems, any party bearing any fault in a crash is barred from seeking damages. Even in collisions where both parties bear some amount of fault, the amount of fault assigned to those parties is irrelevant because neither party is allowed to seek damages from the other.

However, the weighing of fault between parties is significant in comparative negligence, which are split into pure, modified and slight/gross comparative fault systems.

The 46 states enforcing comparative negligence are split as follows:
–14 states have pure comparative negligence
–14 states have modified comparative negligence in which the threshold is less than 50 percent
–17 states have modified comparative negligence in which the threshold is 50 percent or less
–South Dakota employs a slight/gross comparative fault system.

In pure comparative negligence systems,like Florida’s, damages are tied to a plaintiff’s proportion of fault in a crash. A plaintiff can recover damages at any fault level under this system. In a scenario posed by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, a plaintiff in such a system who was found to be 95 percent at fault for a crash could still seek 5 percent of damages from the defendant. The portion of damages you can recover is the inverse of your portion of fault.

In modified comparative negligence systems, a bar is set on a plaintiff’s fault level that, once reached, prohibits that plaintiff from pursuing damages. “Less than” systems of modified comparative negligence allow plaintiffs to recover damages only if their degree of fault is less than that of the defendant.

Under a “less than or equal to” system, plaintiffs are also barred from awards if their fault is greater than that of the defendant, but they would also be allowed damages if they are decided to be equally at fault or if the the defendant is more at fault than the plaintiff.

About Ben Zitney
Benjamin Zitney has been covering the auto insurance industry for the past 2.5 years. Before coming to Online Auto Insurance News, he produced an extensive company history of the 30-year-old California Joint Powers Insurance Authority and worked at the Cal State Long Beach Daily Forty-Niner as a reporter, copy editor and news editor.

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