Walking Drivers: A “Sudden” Defense to Rear-end Liability

A rear-end collision is a unique animal in the law. Plaintiff’s attorneys seek them out, and insurance companies fear them­­–sometimes for good reason.  The “rear-end” accident is unique because proof of the mere fact that one vehicle strikes the rear of another creates a strong legal presumption of fault under La. R.S. 32:81. While this presumption is formidable, it may be overcome.

The rear-end presumption is premised upon the duty to not follow too closely and the law will assume that the following driver breached this duty when there is impact. However, the following driver can escape liability if he shows that his vehicle was under control, that he followed at a safe distance, and that the lead driver negligently created a hazard which could not have reasonably been avoided. For instance, if it is shown that the reckless or unpredictable driving of the lead motorist created a sudden emergency, the following driver will not be at fault. Brewer v. J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc., 35 So.3d 230 (La. 2010). Once established, the sudden emergency defense trumps the “rear-end presumption.”

A “sudden emergency” is created when a driver is placed in a position of imminent peril that he or she did not create through their own conduct. Hickman v. Southern Pacific Transport Company, 262 So.2d 385 (La. 1972). When a driver can demonstrate the existence of a sudden emergency, they are not negligent for failing to do what a reasonable person might have done to avoid the accident had they been given enough time to assess and react to the situation.

In Jewitt v. Alvarez, 179 So.3d 645 (La. App. 2 Cir. 9/30/15), a following driver who rear-ended the vehicle of the lead driver was free from fault as a result of the sudden emergency defense where the facts revealed that the accident was solely caused by the slow speed of the lead driver (who almost came to a complete stop on the interstate) and the presence of surrounding traffic prevented the following vehicle from taking evasive action.

In Carias v. Loren, 2015 WL 1019481 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/9/15), an eighteen-wheeler was traveling in the middle lane of the interstate when a “phantom driver”  moved without warning from the left lane to the middle lane and slammed on its brakes in front of the eighteen-wheeler. In attempt to avoid the collision, the driver of the eighteen-wheeler swerved to his right and impacted a vehicle which then struck the plaintiff’s vehicle. The driver of the eighteen-wheeler invoked the sudden emergency defense; the court agreed and found the defendant-driver free from fault.

Rear-end collisions are hard to defend, but a defendant may want to gather a clear understanding of all of the facts before accepting liability. If these facts support the sudden emergency defense, the driver may “walk.”


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