Sudden Stop of Lead Vehicle Did Not Rebut Presumption of Negligence of Following Vehicle in Rear-End Collision

A recent decision, Maillard v. New York City Transit Authority, illustrates how liability is assessed (in the First Department, which encompasses Manhattan and the Bronx) in a rear-end collision.

This car accident case involved four cars, which impacted one another.  The lead driver, Donalds, was struck from behind by Husband, who was struck from behind by Maillard, who was struck from behind by Augustine; that is:

Augustine —-> Maillard —-> Husband —-> Donalds.

Lead driver Donalds argued that he “cannot be held liable for the motor vehicle collisions because he testified that he came to a stop due to an accident in front of his vehicle, and that he was stopped when he was rear-ended by Husband’s vehicle,” and Husband argued that “he did not cause or contribute to the multi-vehicle collision because his vehicle was stopped when he was rear-ended by Maillard’s vehicle.”

The NYCTA defendants claimed that “Donalds’s vehicle suddenly stopped for no apparent reason, and that Husband was following too closely to Donalds’s vehicle.”

Applying the “presumption … that no negligence on the part of the driver of the lead vehicle contributed to the collision”, the court held that Donalds’ and Husband’s testimony that they were each at a complete stop when rear-ended resulted in summary judgment for each dismissing the claims against them.

The court rejected the NYCTA defendants’ argument that Donalds “suddenly stopped on the FDR Drive for no reason.”  Even assuming that the lead driver (Donalds) suddenly stopped his car, “the NYCTA defendants would still fail to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Donalds negligently operated his vehicle, or whether such alleged negligence was a substantial factor in causing the collisions.”

It noted the inconsistency in the First Department as to whether “evidence that the lead vehicle suddenly stopped rebuts the presumption of negligence of the rear vehicle in a rear-end collision,” noting in particular Cabrera v. Rodriguez (2010) (sudden stop insufficient to rebut presumption) and Berger v. New York City Housing Authority (2011) (sudden stop may rebut presumption).

The court resolved this apparent conflict by adopting the position of two recent First Department cases – Androvic v. MTA (2012) and Franco v. Rolling Frito-Lay Sales (2013) – which “follow the majority of cases in the First Department that a sudden stop is not, in itself, sufficient to rebut the presumption of negligence of the following vehicle.”  (Emphasis added.)

Therefore, ” to the extent that the NYCTA defendants could raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Donalds’s vehicle suddenly stopped, such evidence is not sufficient to rebut a presumption that Donalds did not operate his vehicle negligently, or that no negligence on Donalds’s part contributed to the collision.”

As to Husband, the court rejected the NYCTA defendants’ reliance on the Second Department 1997 case of Sanford v. Stillitano, in which the appellants were denied summary judgment, even though they were hit from behind.  In Sanford, “there were triable material issues of fact as to whether the appellants’ vehicle had been lawfully stopped or had stopped suddenly, and material issues of fact as to the sequence of the collisions.”  Furthermore, that case was inapplicable, “because, unlike the majority of cases in the Appellate Division, First Department, the Appellate Division, Second Department has ruled that a sudden stop of the lead vehicle is a non-negligent explanation that may rebut the presumption of negligence of the following vehicle.”

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