Rear-end accidents typically involve one vehicle striking the rear of another vehicle. There may however be a somewhat different twist on your traditional rear-end accident in that sometimes people actually back into other vehicles.
Rear-End Accidents From The Virginia Supreme Court
There are a number of reported cases from the Virginia Supreme Court dealing with the more traditional rear-end accidents. In one case a flat bed truck was parked in one lane of an undivided highway. The plaintiff rounded a sharp curve and was temporarily blinded and did not see the vehicle stopped in that lane and rear-ended the vehicle. The Virginia Supreme Court said that it was error for the trial court to rule that this was contributory negligence as a matter of law on the part of the plaintiff. That is, the case should have been submitted to the jury for a decision to decide who was at fault and whether or not that fault was in fact a cause of the collision.
In another reported case a tractor trailer was improperly stopped on the roadway and was not lit at night. That alone presented an issue of whether or not the plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence in not seeing the stopped vehicle.
In another case a vehicle began to stall while it was en route to a gas station to fill up. The vehicle had previously stalled because of the lack of gas. While en route to the gas station that vehicle was rear-ended by another vehicle traveling within the speed limit. The stalling vehicle had no emergency flashers on. The court ruled that the issue of negligence in regard to the lack of flashers and negligence in regards to failing to maintain the proper fuel level created a jury question as to the fault of that first vehicle.
It is well established that the mere fact that a rear-end accident occurs does not necessarily dictate that the striking vehicle is at fault. That rear-end accident however may create what is called a prima facie case of negligence. What that means is that the injured party who is bringing the claim has by presenting evidence of the rear-end accident made out a basic claim that should be allowed to proceed forward and then the burden rests on the striking vehicle to show why it rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle.
There are a number of instances involving sudden stopping on the highway. In fact in one case that I was involved in on the appeal, I alleged on behalf of a defendant that the plaintiff had stopped suddenly and that was sufficient to justify a jury instruction based on the negligence of the plaintiff and that negligence on the plaintiff’s part should bar the plaintiff’s claim. In fact the jury agreed with that jury instruction and awarded the plaintiff no damages.
In those instances where there is alleged to be a mechanical failure that contributes to a rear-end accident then that may justify what is called a “sudden emergency instruction”. A sudden emergency typically arises in those instances where there is no negligence on the part of the defendant i.e., the defendant had no reason to know or suspect a mechanical failure and therefore the sudden stopping or sudden mechanical failure is not the fault of that defendant and the defendant should not be liable in that instance.
Instances of where a portion of a vehicle is allowed to protrude into another lane frequently become matters of simply who to believe. That is, did one vehicle stray into the other lane or did they both stray into the so-called “no man’s land”. Those present difficult questions of fact that typically must be submitted to a jury for decision.
Likewise instances of where a vehicle is pulling onto the roadway at a low speed from the shoulder or from an intersecting roadway and then is rear-ended can present difficult questions likewise of who was at fault. It may be that the vehicle entering the roadway is at fault or it may be that the striking vehicle is at fault.
There also are a number of cases involving instances of where a motorist brakes in order to avoid an animal in the roadway. Those cases can frequently present jury issues as to who is at fault. By a jury issue I mean that the case should be allowed to proceed so that it is submitted to the jury for a final decision as to fault and damages if necessary.
Following Too Close As Cause of Rear-End Accidents
In most rear-end accident cases the issue of fault comes down to whether or not the striking vehicle was following too closely. Virginia Code § 46.2-816 clearly says that a driver shall not follow another motor vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent having due regard to the speed of both vehicles, the traffic on the highway and the conditions of the highway at the time of the collision. For instance what may be negligence on the part of a striking vehicle on a dry road may not be negligence on the part of a striking vehicle when the road is wet or covered with snow or ice. Likewise the type of vehicle may be relevant in determining what is reasonable. The distance to be maintained by a truck may be different than the distance to be maintained by an automobile. Likewise the distance to be maintained from a motor cycle may be different than the distance to be maintained from a motor vehicle. If a motor cycle is rear-ended that is probably going to result in catastrophic injury to the driver. All of those circumstances may be considered by a judge or jury in deciding the merits of a case.