Iowa Court Of Appeals Throws Cold Water on Rear-End Car Crash Cases

By harley erbe


It's commonly thought that driver of the rear vehicle in a rear-end car accident is automatically at fault for the collision. While that general belief is often proved true, in some instances the driver of the rear vehicle escapes liability. The recent Iowa Court of Appeals decision of Daniel Griggs v. Nancy Schramm was one such case.

Nancy Schramm rearended Daniel Griggs. The evidence showed Schramm’s vehicle collided with the rear of Griggs’s vehicle after Griggs stopped at a controlled intersection. Schramm applied her brakes before the collision. Nonetheless, the front license plate of her vehicle contacted the trailer hitch on the rear of Griggs’s vehicle. A detective happened on the scene, investigated the accident, and issued Schramm a citation for failure to keep an assured distance. Griggs drove himself from the accident to the hospital, presenting with back pain. Eventually, at a much later date, Griggs underwent surgery to address injuries he claimed he sustained in the accident with Schramm.

Griggs sued Schramm for personal injuries. The jury returned a defense verdict in Schramm's favor. The trial court denied Griggs's motion for a new trial.  Griggs appealed.

Griggs contended that the jury’s finding that Schramm was not at fault was not supported by the evidence. He argued that the jury could not have exonerated Schramm’s negligence because the undisputed evidence showed that Schramm collided with the rear of his vehicle while he was properly stopped at a controlled intersection. The court rejected Griggs's argument. 

The court first noted that the mere fact that an accident happened does not necessarily mean that the defendant was negligent. That includes rear-end collisions. Whether the defendant in a rear-end collision case is liable depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of the collision, not just the fact that the defendant struck the plaintiff's vehicle in the rear.  

The court also thought that the jury instructions were problematic for Griggs and gave him a very narrow window for a finding of liability against Schramm. The only specification of negligence submitted to the jury was whether Schramm was negligent in driving a vehicle at a speed greater than would permit her to stop within the assured clear distance ahead. The court decided that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to determine that Schramm was not traveling at a negligent rate of speed. The evidence in that regard included (1) the minimal property damage to both vehicles; (2) Schramm's testimony that she was traveling at a low rate of speed; (3) a defense expert who opined that Schramm was traveling at a low rate of speed; and (4) the lack of skid marks.

One takeaway from this case is that accident victims should try to present juries with a broader series of negligence specifications than in Griggs. If a jury is told that speed is the only issue, and the jury concludes that the defendant wasn't driving with negligent speed, the plaintiff loses even if the defendant may have been negligent in some other manner. A possible way to avoid that problem is to also accuse the defendant of failing to keep a proper lookout. That's a very common cause of car accidents. That way, even if the jury has no concerns with the defendant's speed, it still has the option of finding the defendant negligent for failing to keep a proper lookout, regardless of the defendant's speed at the time of the crash.

Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines personal injury lawyer.

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