Liability for a Rear End Car Crash in New York City

Rear-end car accidents are among the most common types of car accidents that occur in New York City.  This should come as no surprise, given that traffic conditions are often quite congested, and stop-and-go traffic as well as myriad distractions are ever-present throughout NYC.  Taking one’s eyes off the roadway even for a moment in such congested driving conditions can – and often does – result in a rear end collision which can result in serious injuries.  For this reason, rear-end car accidents are among the most commonly litigated types of car accidents in the courts within the five boroughs of New York City.

If you are involved in a rear-end car crash anywhere in New York City, you should be aware of the legal framework that the courts of the State of New York have built to determine liability in a rear-end car accident.  In this article, we will explore this framework so that readers will understand the claims that accident victims who are injured in rear-end crashes should make in their cases, as well as the defenses that those responsible for causing a rear-end car accident may try to use to escape liability.  We hope that this article is helpful to victims of rear-end car accidents in teaching them what their rights are if they are injured in a rear-end car accident anywhere in New York City, or elsewhere throughout the State of New York.

The general rule under New York law regarding liability for a rear-end car accident is that a rear-end collision with a stopped or stopping vehicle creates a “presumption” that the operator of the striking vehicle (i.e., the vehicle to the rear that hits the vehicle in front of it from behind) was negligent, and thus legally responsible for the accident and any injuries caused thereby.  Once this is proven (i.e., that there was a rear-end collision, and the front vehicle was stopped, was in the process of stopping, or was at least slowing down), the law then shifts the burden of proof to the striking vehicle to provide a “non-negligent” explanation for having hit the other vehicle in the rear.  In most cases – despite valiant efforts by many creative defense attorneys – there is no non-negligent explanation, and quite often the court will determine, as a matter of law (i.e., without the need for a jury trial on the issue of liability), that the striking vehicle is legally responsible for the rear-end accident.  If this determination is made, the case will go to trial only on the issue of damages (i.e., compensation for the injuries caused by the accident).

One might think that proffering the excuse that the lead vehicle in a rear-end collision “stopped short”, thus causing the striking vehicle to crash into it, would qualify as a “non-negligent” explanation sufficient to at least raise questions as to liability for a rear-end car accident.  You would be sorely mistaken, however, as New York courts, interpreting Section 1129(a) of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (the law that provides that motorists must not follow another motorist too closely) have explicitly held that a claim that the lead vehicle “stopped short” is not a non-negligent explanation sufficient to defeat the presumption of negligence that arises once proof of a rear-end car accident has been tendered by an injured plaintiff.  This is because, under Section 1129(a) of the VTL, drivers are required to maintain sufficient space between their vehicles and others on the road (including, obviously, those traveling directly in front of them) so as to permit enough time to react even to “short stops” and thus avoid collisions.

An excuse that can constitute a “non-negligent” explanation might involve a claim that an emergency – an occurrence that is out of the ordinary, unexpected, and unforeseeable) – was the cause of a rear-end car crash.  In fact, a defendant in nearly any type of motor vehicle accident can escape liability entirely if he or she proves that an emergency situation proximately caused an accident.  For example, imagine that two cars are driving in traffic, and a large object falls from the sky and goes right through the front windshield of the rear vehicle, causing the driver to be injured and crash into the rear of the vehicle directly in front of it.  In this situation, the striking vehicle would be able to point to this emergency situation and escape liability for a rear-end accident.  In order for an excuse to qualify as an “emergency”, it has to be totally unforeseeable, and not of the striking vehicle’s own making (if the striking vehicle’s driver creates their own emergency, this is no excuse for causing a rear-end car crash).  For example, sun glare has been held not to constitute an emergency situation as it is something that should be foreseen by drivers; everybody knows that, when the sun is up, sun glare can occur, and drivers should take steps to guard against the likelihood of having their vision affected by sun glare as they drive by, for example wearing sunglasses or lowering the visor in their car as they drive.