Trial Tip 57

Roy’s Trial Law “TIPS”——Tip #57[1]

Overcoming the “Sudden Stop” Defense in Rear-End Collision Cases

 

by Roy D. Wasson

Board Certified in Appellate Practice

PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY

JUDGMENT ON “SUDDEN STOP” DEFENSE

 

The Plaintiff, [name], moves the Court for entry of a partial summary judgment on the issue of the Defendant’s negligence and on the “sudden stop” defense pleaded in  Defendant’s Answer and Affirmative Defenses.  For grounds, Plaintiff states that the record in this matter conclusively establishes the absence of any genuine issue of material fact, and establishes that the Plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law that Defendant is liable and that the “sudden stop” defense is legally insufficient.

MEMORANDUM OF LAW


 This is a rear-end collision case in which the Defendant’s vehicle collided with the rear of the Plaintiff’s vehicle.  “In Florida, a presumption of negligence attaches to the driver of the rear vehicle in a rear-end collision.”  Liriano v. Gonzalez, 605 So. 2d 575, 576 (Fla. 3d DCA 1992).  That presumption can be rebutted, but only “when the defendant produces evidence which fairly and reasonably tends to show” that the following driver was not negligent.  Gulle v. Boggs, 174 So. 2d 26, 29 (Fla. 1965)(emphasis added).  The burden on the defendant is not to come up with just any explanation, but one which is “substantial and reasonable.” Brethauer v. Brassell, 347 So.2d 656,  (Fla. 4th DCA 1977). In the absence of such a showing by the defendant, the trial court should grant summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff on the negligence issue.  See, e.g., Clampitt v. D.J. Spencer Sales, 786 So. 2d 570, 575 (Fla. 2001)(approving trial court’s grant of summary judgment on issue of the defendant driver’s negligence in causing rear-end collision over “sudden stop” defense).

 

The courts have recognized “[t]hree general categories of affirmative explanations [which] serve to rebut the presumption of negligence.”  Liriano, supra, at 576.  One of those categories is what the defendant has pled here: that the plaintiff stopped suddenly in front of the defendant.[2]  The Plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment on that “sudden stop” defense, because there is no evidence in the record that the Plaintiff’s allegedly “sudden stop” was arbitrary, done without warning and for no apparent reason.

The defendant in a rear-end collision case cannot avoid entry of summary judgment simply by pleading that the plaintiff stopped abruptly in front of him or her, but must produce evidence that any reasonable driver following the plaintiff would have had no reason to anticipate that stop and avoid the collision, because the stop was both “abrupt and arbitrary.”   See Eppler v. Tarmac America, Inc., 752 So. 2d 592, 594 (Fla. 2000)(emphasis added).

The present state of Florida law on this subject has developed in accordance with the Fifth District’s decision in Pierce v. Progressive American Ins. Co., 582 So. 2d 712 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991), in which the court held:

 

It is not merely an “abrupt stop” by a preceding vehicle (if it is in its proper place on the highway) that rebuts or dissipates the presumption that the negligence of the rear driver was the sole proximate cause of a rear-end collision. See Cowart v. Barnes, 370 So. 2d 103 (Fla. 1st DCA), cert. denied, 379 So. 2d 202 (Fla. 1979). It is a sudden stop by the preceding driver at a time and place where it could not reasonably be expected by the following driver that creates the factual issue.  Burton v. Powell, 547 So.2d 330 (Fla. 5th DCA 1989).

 

Id. at 714 (emphasis added).

As the case law has developed following Pierce, where the leading vehicle occupied by a plaintiff slows or stops due to traffic or road conditions, such as a red light, or because other cars are stopping ahead of it, or in order to negotiate a turn, [ADD SUMMARY OF CIRCUMSTANCES OF THIS CASE], that deceleration will not rebut the presumption of the defendant’s negligence, even if the deceleration was rapid.

 

Only where a leading vehicle stops under inexplicable circumstances, will the presumption of defendant’s negligence be rebutted, such as where the plaintiff stops in the middle of a block where there is no place to turn, without being forced to slow by other traffic or a traffic signal.  See Hunter v. Ward, 812 So. 2d 601 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002).  “Therefore, if a vehicle suddenly stops in a roadway, but the stop happens at a time and place where it can reasonably be anticipated . . . , then the presumption of negligence is not rebutted. However, if the stop is not expected,  i.e., >abrupt and arbitrary’ in a place not reasonably expected as in Eppler, then the presumption is rebutted,”  Id. at 603.

The Pierce case involved a four-vehicle, chain reaction collision in which the parties were driving on a divided highway in moderately heavy traffic.  The lead driver, Boone, looked ahead and saw a traffic light which had turned red at an intersection, and came to a “moderate” stop. The second car in the chain, driven by Reaves, then “came to a quick stop, skidding its tires a short distance.” The third driver, Tiroff, “braked moderately at first, then increased the braking as he came to a quick stop some two feet behind Reaves without striking him.”  Then the fourth vehicle, operated by Pierce, collided with the rear of Tiroff’s automobile.

Reaves and Tiroff were granted summary judgments, which the en banc Fifth District affirmed on appeal.  In rejecting the “sudden stop” argument made by Pierce, the court held:

 

As a matter of law, it is not a substantial and reasonable explanation by Pierce to merely say that the vehicles ahead of him whether Boone Reaves, or Tiroff  stopped abruptly. Such stops had to be reasonably anticipated at the time and place where they occurred according to Pierce’s own testimony: in a crowded lane of traffic approaching a busy intersection controlled by a traffic signal which was in view of all four drivers at the time of the collisions.

 

582 So. 2d at 714 (emphasis added).

The Florida Supreme Court later approved the Fifth District’s decision in Pierce in a case involving a three-vehicle chain reaction collision on U.S. Highway 27.  The first vehicle was a pickup truck towing a small trailer, and was being driven by Huguley at a speed of from forty-five to fifty-five miles per hour.   Huguley put on his turn signal and began braking, planning to turn into his driveway.  The plaintiff Clampitt, in the second car, struck Huguley’s trailer and came to a “dead stop” on the highway.  Clampitt’s car was struck in the rear by a tractor-trailer rig owned by Spencer Sales and operated by  Hetz, who was unable to stop and skidded 100 feet.

Clampitt sued Hetz, and Hetz raised the Plaintiff’s collision into Huguley and resulting abrupt stop as a defense.  The trial court rejected Hetz’ defense and entered summary judgment in favor of Clampitt.  That summary judgment was erroneously reversed by the First District, but then reinstated by the Supreme Court, which held:

 

Based on this record, Spencer Sales failed to meet the Gulle standard:  It failed to present evidence that “fairly and reasonably” tends to show that Hetz was not negligent in colliding with Clampitt’s auto. The trial court properly granted Clampitt’s motion for summary judgment and the district court erred in ruling otherwise.

 

This is a classic “sudden stop” case. Clampitt’s auto stopped abruptly on the highway as the result of a collision with Huguley’s trailer, and Hetz’s tractor-trailer rig was unable to stop in time. Unfortunately, accidents on the roadway ahead are a routine hazard faced by the driving public. Such accidents are encountered far too frequently and are to be reasonably expected. Each driver is charged under the law with remaining alert and following the vehicle in front of him or her at a safe distance.

 

786 So. 2d at 575.

 

As noted by the Supreme Court in the Clampitt case, even where the sudden stop by the plaintiff is the result of the Plaintiff colliding with a third driver who has stopped ahead of her, the defendant who thereafter crashes into the rear of the plaintiff’s vehicle cannot overcome the presumption of negligence by asserting that the plaintiff was herself negligent in rear-ending the first vehicle. 786 So. 2d at 574 (“court in Pierce also rejected the notion that the rear driver can benefit from a claim that the forward driver was negligent in rear-ending the vehicle in front of him or her”).  Even assumed negligence on the Plaintiff’s part which results in a sudden stop will be no defense to the following driver who fails to foresee and avoid the second collision.

 

Plaintiff in the present case is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the manner in which this collision occurred did not render the alleged “sudden stop” by the Plaintiff both “abrupt and arbitrary.”   The evidence concerning how and why the Plaintiff stopped ahead of the Defendant is that . . . .

[INSERT FACTS CONCERNING ALLEGED “SUDDEN STOP”]

Thus, this is not a case like Eppler v. Tarmac America, Inc., 752 So. 2d 592 (Fla. 2000), which the Supreme Court in Clampitt characterized as involving a “gotcha stop.”  See Clampitt, supra, 786 So. 2d at 574 (emphasis added).  The facts of Eppler were as follows:

 

In the present case, Tarmac came forward with evidence showing the following: (1) The Tarmac truck was stopped ten to eleven feet behind Eppler’s auto in a line of traffic at a red light; (2) when the light turned green, all the vehicles in the line proceeded forward and were accelerating in a routine fashion; (3) the Tarmac driver, Morris, accelerated slowly with the other vehicles, shifted from first to second gear, and had been in second gear for three or four seconds when Eppler suddenly without warning and for no reason slammed on her brakes. Pursuant to the Gulle standard, this evidence “fairly and reasonably tends to show” that the presumption of negligence on Morris’s part is misplaced, for an abrupt and arbitrary stop in such a situation is not reasonably expected. In fact, it is a classic surprise.

 

752 So. 2d at 594-95(emphasis added and footnotes deleted).

 

There was nothing “arbitrary” about the Plaintiff’s actions in this case.  The present case is one instead in which the Plaintiff had a valid reason and a foreseeable one to slow or stop his/her vehicle in traffic.  Cf. Wright v. Ring Power Corp., 28 Fla. L. Weekly D167 (Fla. 5th DCA Jan. 3, 2003)(reversing denial of directed verdict for plaintiff who suddenly stopped in intersection while attempting to turn left); Hunter v. Ward, 812 So. 2d 601 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002)(reversing denial of directed verdict for plaintiff struck from rear in chain-reaction while attempting left turn through median). Thus, the Plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law establishing the Defendant’s negligence and invalidating the “sudden stop” defense.

CONCLUSION

WHEREFORE, the Defendant having failed to overcome the presumption of negligence arising from a rear-end collision, the Plaintiff’s alleged “sudden stop” being foreseeable to the Defendant, and the Plaintiff being entitled to judgment as a matter of law, this motion should be granted and summary judgment on the liability issues be entered.

 

Respectfully submitted,

Attorney for Plaintiff

 

Florida Bar No.                                                                                                                        FL 32935

Telephone: (     )

Facsimile:   (     )

 

I HEREBY CERTIFY that a true copy hereof was served by U.S. Mail upon_________ this ____ day of January, 2005

 

 

 



          [1]  ©2003-2006 by Roy D. Wasson and the Florida Justice Association.

[2]The other two categories, inapplicable here, involve unexpected mechanical failure and illegally parked vehicles.  See, e.g., Tozier v. Jarvis, 469 So. 2d 884, 886-87 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985).