The Rear-Ending Driver is Not Always At Fault Under Louisiana Law

Under Louisiana Law the rear-ending driver is actually only presumed at-fault and has the opportunity to prove that he was free from fault by showing the Court the following:

1) He had his vehicle under control prior to the collision;
2) He had watched the lead vehicle closely;
3) He keep a safe distance from the lead vehicle; and
4) It was the lead vehicle that created the hazard which he could not reasonably avoid.

While the rearending driver is afforded this opportunity to disprove his negligence, it is a rare event when he is found 100% free from fault. In Matherne v. Lorraine, 888 So. 2d 244 (La. Ct. App. 1st Cir. 2004), the lead driver, Lorraine, was assigned a percentage of fault, notwithstanding the presumption of negligence that attached to the conduct of the following driver, Matherne. Lorraine had stopped near an intersection to allow for traffic to pass, which was coming from the opposite direction. In attributing partial fault to Lorraine, the trial court found that she stopped abruptly and did not turn on her left turn signal and her actions caused Matherne to drive his vehicle into the rear of her vehicle. The trial court allocated 50% of the fault to each driver because Lorraine’s “substandard conduct” contributed to the cause of the accident.

In Brewer v. J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc., 9 So. 3d 932 (La. Ct. App. 1st Cir. 2009), the parties were traveling in an easterly direction on the interstate. Defendant driver, Jackson was driving an 18-wheel tractor-trailer owned by his employer, Hunt, which carried a load of bulk paper. Plaintiff, Brewer was driving his 1994 Chevrolet pickup truck en route to Southeastern Louisiana University to register for the upcoming semester. Jackson was traveling in the right lane of traffic and Brewer was to his rear in the left lane. The particular section of the interstate were the parties traveled was part of ongoing construction work, and, as a result, the posted speed limit had been reduced to 60 miles per hour. In anticipation of the closure of the right lane to accommodate the construction work, Jackson slowed the 18-wheeler from approximately 40-45 miles per hour to approximately 5-10 miles per hour. He then proceeded to move the tractor-trailer into the left lane of traffic across the solid white line that divided the two lanes. Brewer, proceeding in the left lane at or near the posted speed limit, reacted to the 18-wheeler’s movement first by steering toward the right, then by straightening the truck’s wheels and braking hard. Despite skidding for approximately 102 feet, Brewer was unable to stop his vehicle in time to avoid colliding with the rear end of the tractor-trailer. The pickup truck came to rest against the rear tires of the 18-wheeler, the front cab completely crushed beneath the trailer.

Ultimately, both parties were found negligent. The Court reasoned that while Brewer’s inattention was a contributing cause of the accident, it wasn’t necessarily the primary cause. The Court explained that the following factors created the liability of Jackson:
1) The magnitude of the risk created by the 18-wheeler;
2) The careless manner in which Jackson attempted to merge into Brewer’s lane;
3) Jackson’s knowledge as a professional truck driver of the danger involved in lane changes, especially across solid white lane lines;
4) His greater experience and training; and
5) The magnitude of the harm created by Jackson’s conduct.

Thus, depending on the circumstances, the lead vehicle in a rear-end accident may not always be free from fault. Accordingly, the driver of a rear-ending vehicle should always consult an attorney, as he still may be entitled to compensation.