Leave it to lawyers to make a simple case complicated.
Perhaps no legal matter is more common or more seemingly simple than the rear-end motor vehicle accident. One need not have gone to law school to know that the rear most driver is at fault, right?
Indeed, both the civil law and law enforcement authorities do presume that the rear driver is at fault and in most cases, that driver is going to receive a Virginia Uniform Summons for “following too closely.” But why is this almost automatic?
In fact, civil rules rarely turn on following too closely but instead focus on two major issues: (1) the driver’s lookout and (2) issues of time, speed and distance. Just because one has caused a rear-end accident does not impose automatic civil liability – but it does strongly suggest it. Here’s why: The driver must trail the vehicle ahead of him at a reasonable time, speed and distance. In addition, the driver must use “ordinary care” to anticipate a stop and in order to be able to avoid a collision. Therefore, if there was a collision, then there is liability, right? Not so fast.
Personal injury attorneys encounter a number of factors which make liability far from certain in these cases. First, notice that the law uses somewhat ambiguous terms like “reasonable” and “ordinary care.” How much following distance is reasonable and just how much care must we use? The issue is left to the court and juries in most cases. Note that factors like weather, traffic, road conditions and the behavior or other drivers can significantly affect this analysis. For example, take the case of the multiple vehicle chain reaction accident. If five vehicles all collide with one another, where does the blame start and end? Sometimes the first vehicles will have accelerated and stopped in an unexpected manner. Or a driver who came to a stop may be pushed into another vehicle. Such cases become extremely complicated when the drivers all emerge from their vehicles pointing the finger at one another. In addition, Virginia law allows some leeway for unexpected medical and roadway conditions. Put them altogether and an absolute outcome in a rear-end case is not always certain.
Drivers who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances can do well to protect themselves starting from the moment of the accident. Full cooperation with law enforcement at the scene is essential. If you are physically able to do so, you may point out physical damage, tire marks, and other evidence to the investigating officer. Be sure to review the sequence of events in your mind and as soon as you are able, perhaps make some notes and take some photographs. Be particularly attentive to the number of collisions that you felt and heard. Record things like time, speed and distance to the best of your ability. Avoid discussing these particulars with anyone until you have spoken with your attorney.
In summary, nothing is simple when it comes to the law—even a simple rear-end accident. Blame lawyers if you must, but recognize that anytime an event occurs with multiple witnesses, there will be multiple versions of the truth. The injury victim who is smart and proactive about his case will typically have the advantage and achieve the best possible outcome.