When a personal injury case goes to trial, it is assumed that all parties start at zero—that is, that there is no assumption by the judge or the jury before the trial starts that anybody is or is not negligent, but rather, that the parties must prove through evidence their liability or defenses to liability.
Presumptions and Their Effect
This scenario is not always the case because the law in many cases, including in car accidents, uses a concept called presumption.
Presumption is not a legal term. In normal English usage, the word is defined generally as something that we take as true even if we do not know it for certain. If we do not speak to our neighbor, but we see a moving truck and their normal cars are not in the driveway, we do not know for certain that they moved, but it is a safe presumption we can make.
The law uses presumptions, as well. Legally, a presumption is something that a jury assumes to be true at the start of the trial, which a party can then accept or try to refute, through presentation of evidence. A presumption is a legal inference of a fact or a position that is taken even in the absence of any evidence.
Burden Shifting in Rear-End Accident Cases
The best way to illustrate this concept is through a rear-end car accident case. In Florida, there is a presumption that where one car runs into the back of the other, the car that did the “rear-ending,” is the negligent party. Practically this means that the drivers in the car in front—the one that was hit—do not have to prove that the car that hit them was negligent. That fact is already assumed by the jury going into trial. Of course, the victims may still need to prove their damages, but as for who is liable, the victims can present no evidence, and the car that hit them from behind will be assumed to be negligent.
This does not make presumptions absolute. A party against which a presumption works can refute or contradict that presumption. In our example, that means that the party that rear-ended the car in front can put on evidence to a jury to negate the presumption of negligence. Once that happens, the victims in front now have to prove their case the way they normally would.
This back and forth is often called “burden shifting,” because the burden of proving something goes from the defendant (to prove that the presumption of negligence should be refuted) to the plaintiff victim (to prove that the defendant was in fact negligent).
Recent Case Discusses Rear-End Accident Presumptions
The best way to see how this dance plays out is through analysis of a recent case, which involved a rear end car accident. In the case, a driver testified that he was driving on the Turnpike, and saw no cars anywhere around him. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, a car swerved in front of him, causing him to rear-end the car.
The lawsuit was actually filed by the driver that did the “rear-ending.” Thus, the victim—the car that struck the other one from behind—was filing a lawsuit, even though the case began with the presumption that he was negligent.
To refute the presumption that was working against him, he claimed that the car in front of him invaded his lane and swerved in front of him so quickly that he could not have avoided the collision.
The driver in front asked for the case to be dismissed, arguing that regardless of what the other driver said had happened, the other driver rear ended him, and thus, the other driver surely could not recover damages, given the legal presumption against him of liability. The trial court agreed, dismissed the case, and an appeal was taken.
Appellate Court Overturns Presumption
The appellate court first discussed the real end presumption rule, explaining that it existed to assist drivers who were hit from behind. Because they usually would not be able to describe what happens in an accident—the negligent acts are happening behind them—the law provides them the benefit of the presumption of liability against the rear-ending driver.
But the court also noted the longstanding principle that a presumption can be overcome when the other party shows that a fact upon which the presumption is based is not true. The appellate court cited to other cases where sudden or unexpected lane changes had led to cars rear-ending them. In these cases, the negligence of the front driver was enough to overcome the presumption.
Here, the rear-end driver testified that he was focused on the road ahead of him, and had not looked away. He saw no cars in front of him, until the other driver swerved in front of him. Such sudden and unexpected maneuvers are sufficient to overcome the presumption of liability. Thus, the appellate court held that the trial court was wrong in dismissing the case, and that it should have proceeded forward to be heard and decided by a jury.
As in most cases, the parties will now have to present evidence to a jury, which may find that either party is negligent. Still, the case is a reminder that rear-end accidents are not as easy as they seem just because of the presumption of liability, that the burdens of presumptions need to be understood, and that even a claim or a defense that starts out as presumed can be overcome.
If you are in a car accident, make sure your attorneys understand how to handle presumptions and make sure the responsible parties are found to be negligent. contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your injuries.