The Rear-end Collision Rule Gets a Tune-Up

By Damon Pichoff

In the two separate opinions recently issued in Birge v. Charron and Cevallos v. Rideout (No.’s SC10-1755 and SC09 – 2238, respectively) the Florida Supreme Court fine-tuned the rusty mechanics of the ol’ Rear-End Collision Rule. The Court addressed the conflicting holdings of the Fourth DCA in Cevallos v. Rideout, 18 So. 3d 661 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009), and the Fifth DCA’s Charron v. Birge, 37 So. 3d 292 (Fla. 5th DCA 2010). The Court rebuked the Cevallos decision for its clear departure from the principles of comparative negligence, and approved the Fifth DCA’s holding. In doing so, the Court also seems to be somewhat liberalizing the types of evidence that can be used to rebut the Rear-End Collision Rule.
Florida’s Rear-end Collision Rule was originally adopted by the Court in back in 1959 in Bellere v. Madsen, 114 So.2d 619 (Fla.1959). The Rule states that in a rear-end automobile collision a presumption arises that the driver of the rear vehicle was negligent and his/her negligence was the sole proximate cause of the collision. When applied correctly, the Rule affects only the initial burden of evidence of the Plaintiff. It lessens the burden borne by a plaintiff to prove two of the requisite elements of negligence—breach of the duty of care and causation. The Rule acknowledges that it is plainly difficult for a front-facing driver to establish what has happened behind him/her.
The Rear-End Collision Rule is a rebuttable presumption. Rebuttable presumptions vanish and lose legal effect where evidence is produced from which a jury could conclude that the real fact is not as presumed. Since it rolled off the judicial assembly line over fifty years ago, the evidence necessary for rebuttal of the Rule has been subject to frequent break-downs and significant confusion.
Over the years, the District Courts of Appeals and the Florida Supreme Court’s decisions have narrowly confined the rebuttal channels to: 1) an abrupt and arbitrary stop in a place where it could not reasonably be expected or an unexpected change of lanes; 2) a mechanical failure, i.e., sudden brake failure, that causes the rear driver to collide with the lead driver; or 3) the lead vehicle is illegally and, therefore, unexpectedly stopped. The use of these narrow categories has had an unintended consequence of moving the Rear-end Collision Rule away from its evidentiary roots to affecting substantive law.
In particular, in Cevallos v. Rideout, the Fourth DCA mistakenly held that a rear driver cannot rebut the presumption through the production of evidence of negligence on the part of the front driver. It further erroneously held that a claim for damages filed by a rear driver in a rear-end collision case is barred unless the rear driver establishes a complete absence of negligence on his or her part. The Florida Supreme Court explained that the application of the Rule in Cevallos imposed a de facto contributory negligence standard on the rear driver. Contributory negligence had long been judicially and legislatively abandoned in Florida. The Court suggested that if the rear-driver must show that he/she is totally free from fault, then the neither the Court, nor the jury, gets the opportunity to compare the relative percentages of fault of all those actors involved in the collision.
The Court makes it clear that the Rear-End Collision Rule was never meant to affect or supersede substantive law, and so the comparative negligence principles enunciated in Section 768.81(1)-(5), Florida Statutes, should ultimately inform its application.   The Rear-end Collision Rule is only to be applied where there is an absence of a jury question on the issue of comparative fault. In other words, if there is evidence that a jury could find that the front driver was also at fault, and his/her fault contributed to the collision, the presumption disappears.
Applying these principles to facts in Cevallos v. Rideout and Charron v. Birge, the Court held that both rear drivers had successfully rebutted the presumption. In Charron v. Birge, the front driver was traveling thirty-five miles per hour on a thoroughfare that was unimpeded by traffic or traffic signals. He suddenly slammed on his brakes for no reason, and, further, that he did so in an abrupt and surprising manner to others on the road.  In Cevallos the front driver was traveling forty-five miles per hour over a hill in heavy to moderate traffic, talking on a cell phone, and slammed into the rear of another vehicle stopped on the downhill slope of the overpass. This first collision caused her vehicle to come to an abrupt stop on the roadway. Her disabled vehicle contributed to the subject collision with rear driver, Maria Cevallos. Based upon these facts, the Court concluded there was sufficient evidence that the jury could find the front driver was comparatively negligent in both cases.
Taken together, the Court announced a broad-stroke standard for the Rule: 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 specified in the Rule is erased. This is somewhat of departure from the specific factual instances previously enumerated. It remains to be seen whether the Court’s holdings in Charron and Ceveallos will liberalize the narrow channels previously utilized by the courts and open up new factual possibilities for rebutting the aging Rear End Collision Rule.