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Avoiding Liability in Rear-End Collisions

May 17, 2016

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Generally, a rear-end collision with a stopped vehicle creates a prima facie showing of negligence on the part of the rear driver. Defendants can rebut the presumption of negligence where the rear end collision was the result of a sudden emergency.  The “emergency doctrine” recognizes that where a defendant driver rear-ends another vehicle because of a sudden and unavoidable emergency, the defendant driver may not be negligent if his actions are reasonable and prudent in the context of an emergency.
In <a href=";q=Maisonet+v.+Roman&amp;hl=en&amp;as_sdt=6,33&amp;as_vis=1"><em>Maisonet v. Roman</em></a>, plaintiff sustained personal injuries when defendant’s vehicle struck the rear of his vehicle.  After defendants served their answer, the plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on liability, arguing that because he was hit in the rear, he was entitled to judgment against the defendants as a matter of law.  In opposition, defendants argued that they had a valid emergency doctrine defense.  The defendant driver submitted an affidavit explaining that to avoid a head on collision with another vehicle that had cut him off, he was forced to swerve to his left, causing him to strike the back of the plaintiff’s vehicle.
The lower court granted plaintiff’s motion, and on appeal, the First Department reversed and denied plaintiff summary judgment. The Court opined that the facts viewed in a light most favorable to defendants were sufficient to raise triable issues of fact “as to the existence of an emergency and the reasonableness of defendant driver’s response to that emergency.”  The Court further explained that the emergency doctrine may protect a driver from liability where the driver, through no fault of his or her own, is required to take immediate action in order to avoid being suddenly cut off.
In defending rear-end motor vehicle accidents, defendants should be cognizant of the emergency doctrine defense. If the defendant driver faced any type of emergency immediately prior to the collision, this could constitute an emergency and a viable defense.  At the very least, defense counsel should consider the emergency doctrine as a defense to a plaintiff’s summary judgment motion on liability.
Thanks to Jeremy Seeman for his contribution to this post.

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