Sometimes the law gets so complex that common sense goes out the window. Strained legal definitions and analysis can lead to results that go contrary to what we expect. A recent case in California involving a car accident in which a driver allegedly ran a stop sign but was found not liable for the victim’s injuries, is a good example of this idea.
Facts Seem Clear
The case began simply enough—a driver allegedly blows past a stop sign into oncoming traffic and collides with the victim who is driving in the opposite direction. The victim did not have a stop sign.
Witnesses say that the defendant driver’s car did not look like it even considered stopping, that it blew past the stop sign without hesitation, and that after the collision, the driver was heard telling the victim that he was sorry. The defendant driver, however, told officers at the scene that he did in fact stop at the stop sign. The investigating officer, listening to the witness statements, determined that the defendant driver was at fault.
On the witness stand at trial, the defendant driver again asserted that he stopped, but also admitted that he had the chance to see the victim’s car coming, that the victim had the right of way, and that he exercised bad judgment in not seeing the victim’s car and anticipating its speed before he entered the intersection. He stated that he was “only human,” and that he “made a mistake.” He also agreed that he was not looking in the victim’s car’s direction after he “took off” from the stop sign.
Despite the evidence, the jury found that the driver was not liable for the accident. The victim appealed that decision.
Quirks in California Law
Here is where California law starts to break away from Florida law. Under California auto negligence cases, a driver can actually have a “mistake of judgment,” and not be negligent. A driver in California can make mistakes even in the exercise of due care, without being negligent.
California cases also say that when a driver stops at a stop sign, there is a factual question as to whether he maintained a lookout that would allow him to see oncoming traffic. Important here is the driver’s testimony that he did, in fact, stop at the stop sign.
The victim argued that the defendant admitted he did not look in the victim’s direction, that he rushed out from the stop sign, and that he did not anticipate the speed of the victim’s car. Thus, there was no room for a jury to find that the driver was not negligent.
The appellate court noted that the victim testified that he thought he had room to cross the intersection and still avoid the victim’s oncoming car. Because it was reasonable that he could perceive that, the appellate court determined that the jury’s finding of no liability was reasonable.
Alternatively, the court found that the victim may not have put on sufficient evidence to show that the defendant driver’s perception was unreasonable based on the circumstances.
Thus, the appellate court upheld the jury’s finding of no liability by the driver.
The Differences in State Laws
This seems like a confusing case. It is not stretch to say that legal gymnastics are required to say that a driver could reasonably perceive an oncoming car, be reasonably wrong about that perception, and thus, not be guilty.
Certainly, it would have helped had there been more evidence that the driver actually blew past the stop sign—in that case, the reasonableness of perception would not have mattered. But because the victim apparently did not have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that, he had to rely on a jury’s determination of what was reasonable or not.
Florida law does not parse the difference between what is reasonable to perceive and what is negligent. The only question is whether the driver acted in a way that a reasonable person would or would not act. As a general rule, in Florida, a driver who stops at a stop sign, but fails to observe oncoming traffic, is acting unreasonably, and thus is negligent.
There may be some mitigating factors, and surely the fact that there is an accident does not mean that someone is automatically negligent. But in Florida, a driver who says that he did not look in the direction of oncoming traffic, would likely be seen as negligent. No additional finding of whether the driver’s perception was reasonable would be needed to determine that fact, as it apparently is in California.
Florida’s stop sign law is pretty clear that a driver who blows a stop sign is breaking the law. That law can be used as evidence of negligence in court. There is no room to argue that a driver ran a stop sign but still acted reasonably.
Although this case is from California, it is still an example of how strained interpretations of laws can make things difficult for injury victims, and how important it is to understand the difficulties of even cases that seem “easy” on the surface.
Accident cases are often more difficult than they appear. Do not assume that any car accident attorney can handle your case. If you are in a car accident contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case.