Monday, August 1, 2011

A rear-ender accident: Whose fault? What kind'a lawsuit?

Got hit from behind - Got a lawsuit against the other driver, right? - Not so fast ...

Sounding a cautionary note, Houston Court of Appeals explains:

The mere occurrence of a rear-end collision is not of itself evidence of negligence as a matter of law. See, e.g., Benavente v. Granger, 312 S.W.3d 745, 749 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, no pet.); Neese v. Dietz, 845 S.W.2d 311, 314 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1992, writ denied).

The plaintiff must prove specific acts of negligence on the part of the defendant driver and must prove proximate cause. Neese, 845 S.W.2d at 314. With regard to rear-end collisions, “standards of ordinary care cannot be fixed with any degree of certainty but must be left in large measure to the trier of the facts.” Id. Conflicts in the witnesses’ testimony present credibility questions for the jury to resolve. Id. at 314–15.

SOURCE: Houston Court of Appeals - 01-10-00473-CV - 7/28/11 

[ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] contends that the "undisputed evidence was that at the time of the accident [he] was lawfully stopped with his left turn signal blinking and brake lights on waiting for traffic to clear." Relying, in part, on section 545.062 of the Transportation Code, he argues that the evidence of Nguyen’s negligence was conclusive because she rear-ended his vehicle and admitted to being 100% at fault. Section 545.062(a) provides:

TEX. TRANSP. CODE ANN. § 545.062(a) (West 2011).

But [ Defendant-Driver-behind ] did not admit fault, and there was disputed evidence suggesting [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s negligence. [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] testified that he had been completely stopped for approximately 60 seconds before Nguyen’s vehicle collided with his, but[ Defendant-Driver-behind ]testified otherwise, stating that [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] stopped suddenly and without warning. She stated that she saw [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s brake lights come on when he made a sudden stop, and that she applied her brakes, but she was unable to avoid colliding with [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s vehicle.

[ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] also testified that he was making a left turn into an apartment complex. He testified that he was leaning to the right, talking to a pedestrian through the passenger-side window, and trying to find a pen in his center console. [ Defendant-Driver-behind ]recalled seeing the pedestrian to her right and stated that [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s vehicle had passed the entry for the apartment complex and was at the intersection. She testified that [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s vehicle was "pulled to the right" and that he was not positioned to make a left turn. She also testified that the left-rear side of [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s bumper was damaged, as opposed to the center or right-rear side, in the collision.

The jury could have concluded based upon [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ]’s and Nguyen’s testimony that [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] stopped suddenly or that he was distracted by a conversation with a pedestrian. The jury is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight accorded to their testimony. City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 819. When viewed in the light most favorable to the jury’s finding, the evidence raises an issue as to whether [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] acted negligently. See McDonald v. Dankworth, 212 S.W.3d 336, 340–45 (Tex. App.—Austin 2006, no pet.). Therefore, we hold that the evidence was legally sufficient to support the jury’s finding that [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] was negligent and that his negligence was a proximate cause of the collision.

With respect to apportionment of fault, the jury is given wide latitude in determining the negligent parties’ proportionate responsibility. Hagins v. E-Z Mart Stores, Inc., 128 S.W.3d 383, 392 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2004, no pet); Rosell v. Cent. W. Motor Stages, Inc., 89 S.W.3d 643, 659–60 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2002, pet. denied.). As with our review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the negligence finding, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the finding under review and indulge every reasonable inference that would support it. City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 822. If the evidence is sufficient to support the jury’s negligence finding, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the jury, even if the evidence could support a different percentage allocation. Rosell, 89 S.W.3d at 659–60; Samco Props., Inc. v. Cheatham, 977 S.W.2d 469, 478 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, pet. denied). Having found sufficient evidence that both [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ] and[ Defendant-Driver-behind ]were at fault, we find no basis for interfering with the jury’s assignment of 40% responsibility to [ Plaintiff-Driver-in-front ].

SOURCE: Houston Court of Appeals - 01-10-00473-CV - 7/28/11

An operator shall, if following another vehicle, maintain an assured clear distance between the two vehicles so that, considering the speed of the vehicles, traffic, and the conditions of the highway, the operator can safely stop without colliding with the preceding vehicle or veering into another vehicle, object, or person on or near the highway.

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