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The Defense Line: A Publication From The Maryland Defense Counsel, Inc.

Maryland Federal Court Holds that there is No Presumption of Negligence in a Rear End Car Accident Case When Both Vehicles are Moving at Impact

Charles B. PeoplesCharles B. Peoples
On May 2, 2013, the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment entered in favor of the Defendants in a rear end car accident case by Magistrate Judge Stephanie Gallagher of Maryland’s federal District Court.

The case, Cabrera, et al. v. Western Express, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132241 (D. Md. Sept. 14, 2012), aff’d by 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 8971 (4th Cir. May 2, 2013), arose out of an accident on Interstate 70 when a tractor trailer rear ended a car that merged in front of the tractor trailer. The Plaintiffs sued the tractor trailer driver and his employer. The driver failed to cooperate in discovery by attending his deposition or answering interrogatories. None of the four witnesses to the accident could testify about the actions of the tractor trailer or its driver before the impact. All of the witnesses merely saw the impact.

The Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence of negligence on their part, as no witness could testify about the actions of the tractor trailer prior to impact. Plaintiffs opposed summary judgment, arguing that there was a presumption of negligence in all rear end accident cases. The case hinged on the application and interpretation of two cases: Andrade v. Housein, 247 Md. App. 617, 810 A.2d 494 (2002) and Brehm v. Lorenz, 206 Md. 500, 112 A.2d 475, 479 (1955).

Plaintiffs relied on Andrade, where the plaintiff was rear ended when he was stopped at an intersection. Id. at 619. A witness testified “that she thought [the defendant] and [the plaintiff] were ‘playing around’ at the intersection.” Id. The trial court granted a motion for judgment when there was no evidence presented of the defendant’s conduct prior to the accident. Id. at 620. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision, concluding that

a true evidentiary presumption of negligence arises where a motor vehicle is lawfully stopped on a highway awaiting for traffic to clear before entering an intersecting highway and that vehicle is suddenly struck from behind by another vehicle, resulting in personal injuries and property damage to the driver and the front vehicle.

Id. at 623 (emphasis added). The Court explained,

[T]he [plaintiff] cited two sections of the Transportation Article, which [the defendant] allegedly violated: . . . following too closely and negligent driving. In the absence of some explanation by [the defendant], either section supports an inference or presumption of negligence.

Id. at 622.

The Defendants in Cabrera argued that Andrade was limited by its express language to situations where the front vehicle is rear ended while stoppedat an intersection. In Cabrera, the Plaintiffs were rear ended while admittedly moving on the interstate.

The Defendants in Cabrera relied on Brehm v. Lorenz, 206 Md. 500, 112 A.2d 475, 479 (1955). In Brehm, the front car in a rear end accident stopped unexpectedly and suddenly when a cat darted in front of the car. The defendant hit the car from behind. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the defendant at the close of the plaintiff’s case because the plaintiff failed to present evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant. Maryland’s Court of Appeals upheld this ruling, explaining that the plaintiff

failed to produce any evidence whatsoever of any specific act of negligence on the part of defendant. There was no evidence that he failed to keep a proper lookout, and no evidence that he did not have his car under proper control. There was also no evidence thathe was driving too near [plaintiff]'s car. In fact, [plaintiff] admitted on the stand thathe did not know that any car was coming behind him. It is common knowledge that a driver can usually see in his mirror the reflection of the headlightsof a car coming close behind him. But [plaintiff] admitted that, although the weather was clear on the night of the accident, he did not see any reflection from the lights of defendant's car. There was also no evidence that defendant was driving at an excessive rate of speed before it bumped into [plaintiff]'s car.

Id. at 506-07.

In upholding the trial court’s ruling, the Brehm Court recognized the “general rule that negligence is not presumed from the mere happening of a motor vehicle collision, because it cannot be inferred in the absence of negligence that one party rather than the other was at fault.” Id. at 508. The Court went on to state, “We specifically hold that the mere happening of a rear-end collision of two motor vehicles, without evidence of the circumstances under which it happened, is not proof of negligence of either driver.” Id.

In summary, there was a spectrum of authority. On one end was Andrade setting forth a presumption of negligence in rear end accident cases. On the other end was Brehm, stating that negligence cannot be presumed from the mere happening of a motor vehicle accident. The issue was on which end of the spectrum did the Cabrera case fall?

In an unpublished opinion, Magistrate Judge Gallagher, of Maryland’s federal District Court, sided with the Defendants and held, “where both vehicles were moving at the time of the collision, no such inference of negligence can be drawn simply because the collision involved the front of one vehicle and the rear of another. The accident could have been caused by negligence on the part of either driver, or it could have occurred even though neither driver was negligent. This case falls within [the] province of Brehm.” Thus, the Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants because there was no evidence of negligence on their part, as there was no evidence of their actions prior to impact. The Fourth Circuit affirmed on May 2, 2013, but did not publish an opinion.

In so holding, Judge Gallagher accepted the Defendants’ reasoning that, when a vehicle is rear ended while lawfully stopped at an intersection, it is far more likely that the striking vehicle was negligent than when a vehicle is rear ended while traveling down the interstate, especially where the defendant offers no alternative explanation (i.e., the struck vehicle did not have functioning brake lights, or backed up into the striking vehicle, etc.). Certainly, in contrast, there are more reasonable explanations for a rear end accident when both vehicles are moving that can be attributed to the leading or front vehicle, such as, most prominently, a sudden stop by the struck vehicle operator or where that driver suddenly and without warning cuts off the striking vehicle. In summary, the Court accepted the Defendants’ reasoning that what justified awarding the plaintiff the presumption of negligence when a car is rear ended while stopped at an intersection (as in Andrade), was not present in a case where a car is rear ended while moving on the interstate (as in Cabrera) because there are far too many variables and questions under the circumstances as to negligence to automatically permit a presumption of negligence. Consequently, according to Judge Gallagher’s opinion in Cabrera, there is no presumption of negligence in a rear end accident case where both cars are moving at the time of impact, and a plaintiff must present evidence of negligence to defeat summary judgment in such a case.

Ben Peoples is a partner in the Baltimore office of Thomas, Thomas & Hafer, LLP.

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