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Accident Caused by Rear-End Collision Does Not Automatically Establish Negligence of the Driver who Rear-Ended Other Vehicle

By on May 13, 2016 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff, Marie Richardson, was injured while a passenger on a bus operated by her co-employee, Michelle Herbert (“Herbert”). As the bus approached a traffic light, it rear-ended the vehicle being driven by the defendant Helen Milling. A factual dispute existed as to the color of the traffic light at the intersection where the accident occurred and whether the defendant’s alleged negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. In Richardson v. Milling, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 998 (App. Div. May 2, 2016), the plaintiff appealed a summary judgment order dismissing her complaint after the trial court judge found the defendant not to be negligent.

Plaintiff’s only claim was against the defendant Milling because she was barred by the exclusive remedy defense of the Workers’ Compensation Act to sue Herbert, who was a co-employee. Thus, to recover for her injury, she had to prove that defendant, who was rear-ended by Herbert, could be negligent for this accident.

Plaintiff was unable to see the traffic signal at the intersection. Herbert claimed that defendant slammed on her brakes even though the light was green. Defendant asserted that she was travelling about 50 mph, and although almost all nearby vehicles went through the intersection, she stopped because the light was yellow.

Defendant also testified that, when she saw the light was yellow, she checked her rear view mirror and confirmed it was safe to stop. When she saw the bus approaching and realized that it could not stop in time, she took her foot off the brake to minimize potential impact. She claimed that traffic from a Walmart perpendicular to the intersection was travelling into the intersection at the time.

The trial judge concluded that plaintiff could not attribute any fault to defendant because no tickets were issued at the scene. The judge assumed that, due to the Walmart traffic travelling towards plaintiff, the light facing the parties was likely yellow or red. Moreover, the judge found that, even if the traffic light was green, Herbert had a duty to drive a reasonably safe distance from the defendant to avoid a collision. Thus, the trial judge granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the complaint.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial judge inappropriately engaged in fact finding, failed to view the record in the light most favorable to plaintiff, and erred in his legal analysis.

The Appellate Division found that the trial judge, when faced with conflicting accounts of the accident, should not have resolved the factual issues in the defendant’s favor.

Prior case law held that, based upon the motor vehicle code, following too closely would constitute negligence. However, the Appellate Division pointed out that “the mere occurrence of a rear-end collision does not automatically establish a driver followed the preceding vehicle at an unreasonable distance.” The finder of fact must consider all the circumstances to determine whether a driver conformed to the relevant standard of care.

Here, there was conflicting testimony as to the color of the traffic light as the defendant and the bus proceeded through the intersection. Just because the defendant was not issued a traffic ticket, that does not mean that she could not be liable in a personal injury lawsuit. A driver operating a vehicle “must exercise reasonable care in the control, management, and operation of his or her vehicle, and a driver has a right to assume other drivers will adhere to this standard of care.”

The Appellate Division found that, when viewing the evidence in the most favorable light as to plaintiff, a jury could conclude that the defendant breached her duty of care by attempting to stop at a green light and that her conduct was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. The defendant need not be the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries and any negligence attributable to Herbert would not necessarily bar recovery by plaintiff. Thus, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing this case.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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