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High court upholds common-sense rule of the road


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001

When one car rear-ends another car in Florida, the legal presumption is that the rear driver is at fault.

When one car rear-ends another car in Florida, the legal presumption is that the rear driver is at fault.

That's fair.

After all, the rear driver is the one with more control of the situation. The rear driver should leave enough space to make a safe stop.

But it is only a presumption of fault. In rare cases, the rear driver can try to prove that the driver of the front car was really to blame.

This leads us to a tale.

On the morning of Aug. 30, 1993, a clear, late-summer day, three vehicles were headed south on Alt. U.S. 27 up in Levy County.

The first vehicle, a pickup with a small trailer, turned into a driveway.

The second vehicle was a car driven by Colletta Clampitt. She ran into the pickup truck's trailer and came to a stop.

The third vehicle was a semitrailer truck. It slammed into Clampitt's car, injuring her seriously.

Clampitt sued everybody. Her suit against the pickup driver was dismissed -- after all, in that case, SHE was the rear driver.

But Clampitt won her case against the semitrailer truck's owner, D.J. Spencer Sales. The trial judge found the truck driver at fault. A jury then awarded Clampitt almost $860,000.

The truck's owners won on appeal. The appeals court ruled that there was enough of a question to overcome the presumption of fault. The appeals court said "a jury could reasonably infer that (Clampitt) was negligent in failing to decelerate gradually ..."

Such a ruling gave cheer to tailgaters everywhere: Aha, it seemed to say, it wasn't MY fault that the driver in front of me gave me a surprise!

But the ruling was a little wacky. It conflicted with the existing legal precedent. When such conflicts occur among appeals courts, an even higher court has to settle the hash.

That is why the Florida Supreme Court, fresh from the world stage, was forced to turn its talents to a traffic-accident dispute. The Supreme Court's ruling in Clampitt v. D.J. Spencer Sales was handed down just last Thursday.

Justice Leander Shaw wrote the court's ruling. He noted that a rear driver can overcome the presumption of fault only with evidence that "fairly and reasonably tends to show that the real fact is not as presumed."

The truck's owners, as well as the appeals court, had cited another Supreme Court ruling handed down last year called Eppler v. Tarmac America Inc. Eppler was a woman who stomped on her brakes in traffic for no apparent reason and was hit by a cement mixer from behind. The Supreme Court ruled that Eppler's stop was not only "abrupt" but also "arbitrary."

Got that? The rear driver can overcome the presumption of fault if the front driver's actions are not only "abrupt" but also "arbitrary," for no good reason.

Now, let's return to the Clampitt case. Justice Shaw tells us that the facts are different from those in Eppler. A merely "abrupt" stop is NOT enough to overcome the rear driver's presumption of fault, Shaw wrote:

* * *

Unfortunately, accidents on the roadway ahead are a routine hazard faced by the driving public. Such accidents are encountered far too frequently and are to be reasonably expected. Each driver is charged under the law with remaining alert and following the vehicle in front of him or her at a safe distance.

* * *

So the appeals court ruling was quashed. Clampitt's cash award was restored. And tailgaters in Florida were warned anew that they cannot wriggle off the hook just because the car in front of them stops or slows unexpectedly.

The moral of the story is: Get off my bumper. Next case.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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