Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules that Rear End Accident is Evidence of Negligence Per Se


In the case of Smith v. Wells, No. 2254 EDA 2018 (Pa. Super. June 7, 2019 Kunselman, J., Murray, J., and Pelligrini, J.) (Op. by Kunselman, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a Plaintiff a new trial in a case where the trial court refused to grant the Plaintiff judgment as a matter of law in a case where the trial court erroneously refused to find that the Defendant’s actions in rear-ending the Plaintiff’s vehicle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and causing a chain reaction accident amounted to negligence per se under the assured clear distance ahead rule found under 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3361.  

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when he saw traffic braking ahead. The Plaintiff successfully brought his vehicle to a stop within the assured clear distance between himself and the car ahead without striking any vehicles.   The Defendant, who was traveling behind the Plaintiff’s vehicle, did not. 

During his testimony, the Defendant admitted that he did not stop quick enough and rear-ended the Plaintiff’s vehicle in front of him.  

In his opening statement to the jury, the defense counsel advised the jury that the collision was the Defendant’s fault “no question about it.”   At trial, the defense focused on the issue of whether the accident actually caused any injuries to the Plaintiff.   The defense also asserted that the Plaintiff had an extensive prior medical history and was already suffering from the same symptoms that he sought to attribute to the Defendant’s conduct in this matter.  

The Plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that the Defendant negligently drove his vehicle into the rear of the Plaintiff's vehicle and breached the standard of care as a matter of law. The trial court denied that motion and submitted a verdict slip to the jury that contained a question of whether or not the Defendant was negligent. The jury answered that question in the negative.

The Plaintiff moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the question of negligence which was denied.  The Plaintiff also filed a post-trial motion seeking the same result.  The trial court denied that motion as well.  This appeal followed. 

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed and rejected a prior statement by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a case from 1938, Cirquitella v. C.C. Callaghan, Inc., 200 A.588 (Pa. 1938), in which that Court noted, in part, that “the mere happening of a rear-end collision does not [at common law] constitute negligence as a matter of law on the part of the driver in the rear….” 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court in this Smith v. Wells case limited the Cirquitella decision to its facts and its ancient time period of 1938. The Superior Court noted that, in the recent times, the Pennsylvania legislature had passed 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3361 in which it is provided, in pertinent part, that “No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing, nor at a speed greater than will permit the driver to bring his vehicle to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.   * * *”

The Pennsylvania Superior Court in Smith v. Wells noted that “§3361 is a unified statute on safe-driving speeds and distances.”   The Smith v. Wells court held that this statute prohibits two distinct forms of illegal driving.  “The first is driving at any speed that is unreasonable and imprudent for the conditions and hazards of the road.   The second is driving at any speed that prevents a driver from fully braking before striking a car, pedestrian, or other object ahead."  

The Superior Court noted that a violation of these provisions of this statute amount to negligence per se on the part of the driver.  

In review the facts before it, the court stated that the evidence firmly established that the Defendant drove at a speed that made it impossible for him to stop his vehicle within the assured clear distance ahead and that the trial court, therefore, erred when it did not find that the Defendant’s violation of §3361 amounted to negligence per se. 

Significantly, the Pennsylvania Superior Court also noted that there was no claim by the defense that a sudden emergency existed or any other affirmative defenses “such as brake-failure, ice on the highway, or the Plaintiff’s contributory negligence to excuse this rear-end collision."  

As such, the Superior Court vacated the judgment entered in favor of the Defendant below and also reversed the Order denying the Plaintiff’s request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.   The case was remanded for a new trial on the issues of causation and damages only (with the issue of negligence being considered decided).

Anyone wishing to review this decision may click this LINK.

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