Many people are under the impression that if you hit someone from behind with your vehicle, you are automatically at fault. However, a recent case out of the Houston 14th Court of Appeals demonstrates that this is not true in every rear-end accident. The Houston 14th District Court of Appeals handed down an opinion on July 12, 2018, that is very bad for Texas drivers.
Alexander v Halliburton
In Alexander v Halliburton Energy Services Ince, et. al., a Halliburton employee was driving behind Alexander as they were merging onto Loop 337 from an entrance lane in Comal, County. Both were looking over their shoulder to merge. A vehicle ahead of Alexander that was also attempting to merge stopped. When the lead car stopped, Alexander stopped and the Halliburton employee rear-ended Alexander with such force as to knock her into the first car. Neither weather nor lighting was a factor in this cut-and-dry rear-end accident.
No Failure to Maintain a Proper Lookout
There is a law in Texas that says every driver must maintain a proper lookout. It seems that in a case like this, common sense would dictate that Alexander stopped because she kept a proper lookout and the Halliburton employee failed to stop because he did not. However, neither the jury nor the Court of Appeals saw it this way.
The Halliburton employee, like any defendant well-coached by his defense lawyer, testified that he just “glanced away” right before traffic “suddenly stopped.” As if a sudden stop in a merge line is not to be expected and carefully guarded for like they teach in every driver’s ed course. Apparently, the Court missed that lesson in driver’s ed because the Court saw this as a valid defense argument.
When the question of “whose negligence, if any caused the collision,” was given to the jury, the judge included an instruction on the defense of unavoidable accident. The instruction was “an occurrence may be an ‘unavoidable accident,’ that is, an event not proximately caused by the negligence of any party to the occurrence.” Following this instruction, the jury found no negligence–meaning nobody is at fault even though this was a simple open and shut rear-end collision.
Historically, the unavoidable accident defense has been limited to situations where factors out of the parties’ control such as ice, high winds, hail, sleet, or snow caused the collision. In this case, both the trial court and the court of appeals deviated from the historical application of the defense and applied the defense in optimum driving conditions.
Bad Decision for Texas Drivers
This case is a horrible interpretation of well-established law to the contrary. Drivers who do not pay attention can simply testify that they “glanced away” right before traffic stopped even in a place where any idiot with keys in his hand should know there is a high likelihood of traffic-stopping and that is a defense to negligence? Not paying extra careful attention in an area where cars merge should be part of the definition of negligence.
Innocent drivers are supposed to somehow dispel this defense by proving some other specific act of negligence? The lead car cannot see if the following driver is on his phone or distracted by his radio. All the following car has to do is lie and say he glanced away and this case says he gets to assert a claim that he was not negligent when he rammed into the rear of another car. Hopefully, this case will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and overturned.
For additional reading on liability for rear-end accidents, read: Who is at Fault in a Rear-End Accident?