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Can I Sue a Car I Hit Because it Stopped Short?

Anyone who's been in a rear-end car accident has heard it, particularly if there have been injuries: The car that hits from behind is the one considered at fault. I myself thought that was the case for years before becoming an attorney and becoming educated. But, it's just not true, at least not in Massachusetts. The law is clear and well-settled: Just because you drive into another vehicle, it doesn't always mean you are at fault. It also doesn't always mean that you'll be liable in a personal injury case.

In the substantial majority of cases, chances are that the driver who hit from behind will be found negligent. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but rather the most probable scenario, considering that if a car hit from behind, the driver was probably not driving cautiously enough. He was likely not leaving enough room between him and the vehicle ahead. However, other scenarios are possible--perhaps the roads were unexpectedly slick, or perhaps the vehicle ahead stopped unreasonably quickly.

Of course, each of these examples might be debatable. The example of the road being too slick and the vehicle ahead stopping to quickly both beg the question of how closely the striking vehicle was following. We're not saying that in these few exceptions there will be no finding that the rear vehicle was at fault. On the contrary, the point is that there's no hard-and-fast rule naming either vehicle to be at fault. Rather, to determine the at fault vehicle, we'd need the fact-finder (aka the jury) to review the evidence and make a determination as to which vehicle was at fault.

Certainly, we can add facts and the process becomes more clear. Take the example of the vehicle that stops short, for instance. Let's say car one is driving down I-93 South from North of Boston in the left lane, preparing to enter the HOV lane. For anyone who's traveled that lane, you know it chronically has many potholes. Closely behind car one is car two. Car two is driven by an exceedingly impatient operator who wants nothing more than for car one to get out of his way. Car one clearly isn't going to do that, opting instead for the HOV lane in order to void traffic. To make his point clear, car two comes within inches of car one. Both vehicles are traveling at 50 miles per hour.

However, as car one approaches the first series of potholes, the driver gently applies the brakes, at which point car two strikes car one. Although the negligent party is something to be determined by the jury, I would be comfortable with these facts operating under the assumption that the jury would identify car two as the at negligent party.

Let's make a minor tweak to the fact pattern. Let's say we're back at the entrance of the HOV lane with car one and car two driving at 50 MPH, with again only inches between them. Car one sees the potholes and gently applies the brakes. Car two sees the brake lights and immediately applies his own brakes. There's no impact, and car two falls back a few feet off car one's rear, but car two is slowly creeping back up. The driver of car one is highly annoyed and is convinced that he read somewhere that if he's hit from behind, he can sue the driver of that vehicle. After saying a short prayer, the driver of car one slams on his brakes, coming to a complete stop on 93. Car two reacts immediately, but it's too late and there's not enough room to stop. Car two slams into car one, and a pile-up ensues. Again, the jury would determine which party was negligent and to what degree, but it would be reversible error for the judge to make the decision. And I, as a personal injury lawyer practicing in Boston, would be must less sure about what the jury would ultimately decide. In the latter example, because there was probably some fault on both sides, the case value would go down for settlement purposes, and the attorney representing the driver of car one would be in a difficult position to get full value of the plaintiff's case.

The lesson of this discussion is that there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to determining the at-fault party of a rear-ender. Be sure to preserve the facts, evidence, and witnesses as soon as possible; the easiest way to do that is usually by retaining a competent personal injury lawyer.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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