Defeating Summary Judgment in Rear End Cases: Viability of the “Sudden Stop” Defense
It is not uncommon for a plaintiff to move for summary judgment on the issue of liability against the defendant as early as possible in a rear-end collision case. When a rear-end collision occurs, the injured occupants of the front vehicle are entitled to summary judgment on liability, unless the driver of the following vehicle can provide a non-negligent explanation, in evidentiary form, for the collision.[i] A common non-negligent explanation given by defendants in opposition to a summary judgment motion is the “sudden stop” excuse.
In some cases, the “sudden stop” excuse may be asserted in order to defeat a plaintiff’s summary judgment motion. However, how viable is the “sudden stop” defense? More specifically, when is the “sudden stop” excuse enough to raise a question of fact to overcome the presumption of negligence and defeat the granting of summary judgment?
The New York Vehicle and Traffic Law §1129(a) requires a driver to maintain a safe distance between vehicles. A driver of a motor vehicle “shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent” while taking into consideration the speed of such vehicles and traffic conditions. When a driver of an automobile approaches another automobile from the rear, he or she must maintain a reasonably safe rate of speed and control over his or her vehicle, and exercise reasonable care to avoid colliding with the other vehicle.[ii] Moreover, drivers have a duty to see what there is to be seen and to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to avoid a collision.[iii] With regard to refraining from “following too closely”, there is no shortage of case law illustrating the existing duty of a driver to exercise reasonable care in order to avoid a collision.
A rear end collision with a stopped or stopping vehicle creates a prima facie case of liability with respect to the operator of the following vehicle. Once the plaintiff’s prima facie burden is met, this imposes a duty of explanation on the following vehicle operator to excuse the collision.[iv] In Filippazzo v. Santiago, the Court indicated that the rear-end collision could be excused either through a sudden stop of the vehicle ahead as well as a mechanical failure, an unavoidable skidding on a wet pavement, or any other reasonable explanation.[v]
There are cases that indicate that the “sudden stop” excuse can be used successfully to defeat a motion seeking summary judgment. Moreover, in the case of Rosa v. Colonial Transit, Inc., the Second Department decided that although a rear-end collision with a stopped vehicle creates a prima facie case of liability with respect to the operator of the moving vehicle, a triable issue of fact exists as to whether the driver of the stopped vehicle contributed to the accident by making a sudden stop.[vi] In another case entitled Insinga v F.C. General Contracting, the Second Department found that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the vehicle followed too closely, made an inappropriate sudden stop or drove too fast for traffic conditions.[vii]
There are certainly cases where the Court is not as forgiving when it comes to the “sudden stop” excuse. In Dileo v. Greenstein¸ the Second Department found that the lower court erred in denying the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability, as the defendant’s only claim was that the driver of the lead vehicle stopped short in heavy traffic.[viii] This indicates the courts’ inclination in recognizing that more than just a “sudden stop” by the lead vehicle is required for a party to overcome summary judgment on this issue. For instance, in Thoman v. Rivera, the Court held that evidence that the lead vehicles were traveling at an excessive rate of speed behind vehicles in front of them and then made sudden stops was sufficient to preclude summary judgment.[ix]
If the operator of the moving vehicle cannot come forward with any evidence to rebut the inference of negligence, the driver of the lead vehicle may properly be awarded judgment as a matter of law.[x] However, the cases on this issue illustrate that the bare claim that the driver of the lead vehicle made a sudden stop is insufficient to rebut the presumption of negligence.[xi] Overcoming summary judgment in rear-end collision cases is more likely in those instances where the offending vehicle proffers admissible evidence setting forth the circumstances accompanying the sudden stop of the lead vehicle, such as the lead vehicle traveling at an excessive speed and then coming to abrupt stop.[xii]
As a practical matter, the viability of the “sudden stop” excuse is still questionable. However, the trend of decisions addressing the presumption of negligence in rear end cases indicate that judges are not particularly inclined to deem the bare claim of a “sudden stop” as a sufficient excuse to defeat a motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability. Overall, a defendant has a better chance of convincing a jury rather than a judge that a “sudden stop” contributed to the cause of an accident.
[i] Johnson v. Phillips, 261 A.D.2d 269, 690 N.Y.S.2d 545 (1st Dept. 1999).
[ii] Power v Hupart, 260 AD2d 458, 688 N.Y.S.2d 194 (2nd Dept. 1999).
[iii] Johnson v. Phillips, 261 A.D.2d 269, 690 N.Y.S.2d 545 (1st Dept. 1999).
[iv] See Jumandeo v. Franks, 56 A.D.3d 614, 867 N.Y.S.2d 541 (2nd Dept. 2008); Campbell v. City of Yonkers, 37 A.D.3d 750, 833 N.Y.S.2d 101 (2nd Dept. 2007); Power v Hupart, 260 AD2d 458, 688 N.Y.S.2d 194 (2nd Dept. 1999); Leal v. Wolff, 224 A.D.2d 392, 638 N.Y.S.2d 110 (2nd Dept. 1996); Barile v. Lazzarini, 222 A.D.2d 635, 635 N.Y.S.2d 694 (2nd Dept. 1995).
[v] Filippazzo v. Santiago, 277 A.D.2d 419, 716 N.Y.S.2d 710 (2nd Dept. 2000).
[vi] Rosa v. Colonial Transit, Inc. 276 A.D. 2d 781, 715 N.Y.S.2d 426 (2nd Dept. 2000).
[vii] Insinga v. F.C. Gen. Contracting, 33 A.D.3d 963, 823 N.Y.S.2d 513 (2nd Dept. 2006).
[viii] See Dileo v. Greenstein, 281 A.D.2d 586, 722 N.Y.S.2d 259 (2nd Dept. 2001).
[ix] Thoman v. Rivera, 16 A.D. 3d 667, 792 N.Y.S.2d 558 (2nd Dept. 2005).
[x] Dileo v. Greenstein, 281 A.D.2d 586, 722 N.Y.S.2d 259 (2nd Dept. 2001).
[xi] See Ramirez v. Konstanzer, 61 A.D.3d 837, 878 N.Y.S.2d 381 (2nd Dept. 2009).
[xii] Thoman v. Rivera, 16 A.D. 3d 667, 792 N.Y.S.2d 558 (2nd Dept. 2005).