Is the One who Strikes a Motor Vehicle in the Rear at fault as a Matter of Law?

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There are millions of vehicles on our nation’s roads, which number increases with our population each year as the roadways necessary to handle the heavy flow seem to shrink. Inching along with bumper-to-bumper traffic is not only a frustration and time-waster, but a reality every motorist experiences. Thus, with hordes of traffic wherever you turn, and with every level of driver experience behind the wheel, the calculus for accidents is a built-in statistical certainty.

It is no surprise therefore, that motor vehicle accidents top the list of all negligence cases that evolve from the manner in which a motor vehicle is operated, and the statutory rules that govern.

Here are some examples under our law: a motorist must operate his/her vehicle in a reasonably prudent manner; he/she must see what in his/her view should reasonably be seen; he/she must maintain reasonable control in the operation of the vehicle; he/she must operate a vehicle in such a reasonable manner so as to avoid an accident; and so forth. The keyword that emerges in defining the duty of a motorist is, “reasonable”. The determination of what is “reasonable” is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, not by a “subjective” standard, but by an “objective” one. Thus it becomes the jury’s role to determine whether the motorist operated his/her vehicle in a manner that a reasonably prudent person (objective) would have under the same or similar circumstances, and not by the personal standard (subjective) of the individual motorist.

Many accidents involve one vehicle striking another vehicle in the rear. As a general rule, such an event shifts the burden of proof from the motorist struck, to the motorist who committed the striking, and who must then come forward with proof to relieve him/her from an act of negligence by establishing that the vehicle struck was operated in such a manner as to cause the accident in whole or in part (comparative negligence).

Such was the case recently reported in Argueta V. Thind, published in the New York Law Journal on September 24, 2012 as decided in the Supreme Court, Nassau County, Justice Winslow. In that case, the plaintiff sustained personal injuries when her vehicle was struck in the rear by Thind’s vehicle. The plaintiff claimed she was stopped for a red light and started to proceed when the light turned green, at which time she claimed, the Thind vehicle struck her vehicle in the rear. Argueta moved for summary judgment alleging that defendant was negligent as a matter of law and that she, Argueta was 100% without fault (no comparative negligence).

Defendant Thind offered some proof on papers, that just prior to the impact, Argueta changed lanes into Thind’s path and that the manner in which the plaintiff operated her vehicle was a competent producing cause of the accident.

Presented with such a defense, the court denied summary judgment, holding that the degree of negligence to be apportioned, if any, should be decided by a jury as a question of fact, and not by the court as a matter of law.

There are some strategic lessons to be learned from the relatively simple issue in the Argueta case. If indeed the accident occurred as claimed by the plaintiff (she started to move on the green light and was then struck in the rear), proof should have been offered in an engineer’s reply affidavit that the damage to her vehicle was such that the accident could only have occurred as claimed (or other proof from an accident reconstructionist). While the court might still have held it to be an issue of fact for the jury, the defendant’s insurance company would be more inclined to write the case up as a full liability one noting the experience and expertise of plaintiff’s attorney, which would ultimately assist in a future final resolution of the action. And as every experienced personal injury lawyer knows, a good and just settlement that has the full approval of the plaintiff, is a homerun in the ballpark of uncertainty called a trial, a verdict, and a possible appeal, with its many months or years tacked on in the judicial process.