The second driver is not automatically solely at fault in rear-end collisions, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday as it resolved a pair of conflicting lower court decisions.
The justices unanimously agreed that juries should be allowed to compare the negligence of each driver in a lawsuit regardless of who the plaintiff is and apportion blame accordingly.
They upheld one appellate court ruling that came to the same conclusion in a Seminole County case and quashed another from Palm Beach County.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach had upheld a trial judge's decision that Maria Cevallos, the rear driver, was solely at fault.
The high court's reversal of that decision will let Cevallos seek at least partial damages from the middle driver in a three-car rear end crash, Keri Ann Rideout. The defendant allegedly was on her cell phone and suddenly slammed on the brakes before also rear-ending the car in front of her. Cevallos was four car lengths behind Rideout and had slowed her vehicle approaching a hill crest but still wasn't able to stop in time, courtroom evidence indicated.
"The facts introduced into evidence at trial provided sufficient basis for the jury to conclude that the defendant failed to use ordinary care in operating her vehicle, and that this failure was at least one of the proximate causes of the collision," Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the court.
Florida's comparative negligence law allows juries to determine how much each party in a lawsuit is at fault. For instance, if a jury finds a plaintiff is 40 percent at fault, a judgment against the defendant would be reduced by that amount.
The 4th District's now-quashed ruling said comparative negligence didn't apply to rear-end collision cases. The Supreme Court, in an opinion also written by Labarga, upheld the Daytona Beach-based 5th District Court of Appeal's reversal of a Seminole County trial judge's summary judgment in favor of defendant Warren Birge that was similar to the 4th District's ruling.
Crystal Charron, an injured motorcycle passenger, now will be able to seek damages from Birge. Charron contends that Birge was at least partially at fault for the 2007 crash in Sanford that injured her.
The motorcycle flipped over when its driver, William Smith, unsuccessfully attempted to avoid a collision with the rear of Birge's car. Charron alleged Birge had suddenly slammed on his brakes for no apparent reason. Witness accounts differ, but the justices said a jury should decide how much Birge was to blame if at all.
Smith reached a separate settlement with Birge and is not a party to Charron's case.
Another Florida law says the second driver in a rear end collision is presumed to be negligent, but Labarga wrote that evidence can be introduced to overcome that presumption.
The vote was 6-0 in the Birge case with Justice James Perry recused. Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justice Charles Canady concurred in the result only but didn't explain how they disagreed with Labarga's reasoning. The vote was 7-0 in the Cevallos case.