Nathan Nasser
Nathan Nasser ()

Practically every personal injury attorney – or general practice lawyer for that matter – has had a client injured in a rear-end car accident.

After a while, handling those kinds of cases becomes second nature.

But in 2011, the state Appellate Court threw a curveball to trial lawyers across the state when they overturned a jury verdict in the case of a man who was injured in a rear-end collision in Bridgeport.

The appellate court said the plaintiff failed to prove any direct evidence that the defendant caused the crash and his resulting back injury. The evidence, rather, was all circumstantial – that simply the vehicle was hit from behind and the driver heard a loud noise.

Mere evidence of a collision, the court opined, is not itself sufficient to establish negligence.

Upset at the thought of losing an approximately $50,000 verdict after suffering two herniated disks in his back, the plaintiff asked the state Supreme Court to take a second look.

The justices agreed. And in an opinion officially released last week that brings clarity for lawyers statewide handling rear-end collisions, the state Supreme Court has overturned the Appellate Court.

The justices ruled that circumstantial evidence can be enough, as long as it is sufficient. The decision then spells out further guidance for lawyers.

“What the court did was to set forth the steps one should take to prove a case of negligence by the defendant,” said Nathan Nasser, of Ventura, Ribeiro & Smith. Nasser has represented the plaintiff, Ronald Rawls, in the rear-end collision since the lawsuit was filed in 2007.

“In Connecticut, the law has been that if a plaintiff gets hit from behind, it doesn’t automatically mean that the defendant is negligent,” said Nasser. “The plaintiff still has to prove the defendant was at fault by introducing facts that allows the jury to…. come to a fair and reasonable conclusion that the defendant was negligent.”

In Nasser’s case, his client, Rawls, was traveling westbound on North Avenue in Bridgeport at about 11:30 p.m. March 27, 2006. Rawls worked second shift at Sikorsky Aircraft and had just gotten out of work, according to Nasser.

About 15 seconds after being stopped at a red light at an intersection, a vehicle driven by Zabian Bailey crashed into the rear-end of Rawls’ vehicle.

Nasser said the impact of the crash caused Rawls’ car to “fold up like an accordion.” The impact also caused Rawls to hit the vehicle that was also stopped in front of him.

Though it was not admitted into evidence at the later personal injury trial because the judge thought it would be too prejudicial, Bailey began kicking and spitting at police officers at the crash scene. So police were never able to get a statement from Bailey as to why the collision occurred in the first place.

By the time the case went to trial, Bailey was nowhere to be found, Nasser said.

Nasser collected $20,000 from Bailey’s insurance company to settle the claim against him. Then Nasser filed an underinsured motorist claim against Rawls’ own insurance company, Progressive Northern Insurance, for the additional damages.

Following a trial, a jury awarded Rawls $51,113. Because he already received $20,000 from Bailey, the verdict was later reduced by $20,000.

Nevertheless, Progressive still filed post-verdict motions to try to set aside the verdict, which was denied. Progressive, through its lawyer Stephanie Onorato, of Aldrich & Hanks, who provide counsel for Progressive, then appealed.

Onorato, who was on trial last week and could not be reached for comment for this story, argued that Rawls had failed to provide sufficient evidence for the jury to reasonably find or infer negligence and proximate cause. The appellate court agreed.

“We acknowledge that in this case, the plaintiff testified that he heard a loud noise prior to becoming unconscious, but that testimony was not probative of the elements of negligence, and thus it was as though there was no eyewitness testimony at all to support the plaintiff’s allegations,” wrote Judge Bethany Alvord for the Appellate Court. “Although the jury may make reasonable inferences when determining negligence and causation, the plaintiff must present sufficient evidence from which such inferences may be made. In the present case, that evidence is absent.”

The state Supreme Court justices, in an opinion written by Peter Zarella, disagreed with the Appellate Court’s interpretation.

“…A plaintiff is not required to disprove all other possible explanations for the accident but, rather, must demonstrate that it is more likely than not that the defendant’s negligence was the cause of the accident,” wrote Zarella. “…There are a limited number of possibilities that could have resulted in this type of collision other than negligence. Although it is possible that Bailey’s vehicle could have experienced a mechanical failure, or that Bailey could have suffered from an acute medical condition or encountered a road hazard, these explanations are far less likely, in light of the facts of this case, than those offered by the plaintiff, such as… that Bailey was not paying attention at the time of the collision.”

Nasser said he presented more evidence than simply Rawls’ vehicle was hit from behind. He noted that there were clear weather conditions, the road was flat and well lit.

In addition, Rawls testified that he heard a noise followed by a tremendous impact, observed the defendant’s vehicle was up against his vehicle, and that the Rawls’ vehicle was up against the car in front of his car. Furthermore, photographs of the Rawls’ vehicle were introduced into evidence and the police officer who investigated the crash testified as to what he observed at the collision scene. The justices acknowledged those additional factors in helping the jury reach its decision.

The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, which urged the justices to overturn the appellate decision in an amicus brief, was pleased the justices sided with the plaintiff and believes the ruling will help its lawyers handling similar cases going forward.

“The lack of eyewitness testimony in a rear-ender shouldn’t be an automatic detriment of your case,” said Stephanie Roberge, of Kennedy, Johnson, Schwab & Roberge in New Haven. “That’s what you were left with in the appellate decision.”

Roberge explained that often times in rear-end collisions the driver does not see the incident coming. Also, there aren’t always other witnesses.

“Often time’s rear end collisions are based on circumstantial evidence,” said Roberge. “I think this decision does a good job of recognizing the importance of circumstantial evidence in these cases, the totality of the evidence. And it gives plaintiffs sort of a guide to make sure they’re able to present as much of the surrounding circumstances to prove their case.”