Jennifer Rowlinson | Associate

When a Rear-End Collision Becomes Complicated

A rear-end collision occurs when a vehicle crashes into the one in front of it. Common factors contributing to rear-end collisions include failure to pay attention, failure to maintain a safe braking distance and reduced traction.

As a general rule, a vehicle has to maintain a safe braking distance and said vehicle should be able to stop safely if traffic is stopped ahead of it. However, the general rule often results in a misconception that a driver who is at the rear of a rear-end collision is automatically at fault for the collision.

Summary  of Leslie O’Donnell v Lisa Smith and Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance PLC (2018 SC EDN) 68)

In this case, the driver of a motorcycle (The Pursuer) was travelling 50-60 metres behind a car and was considering overtaking. The driver of the car (the Defender) became “apprehensive” when she saw the motorcyclists in her rear view mirror and braked so harshly that she performed an emergency stop. The Pursuer attempted to avoid the collision but unfortunately, collided with the rear of the stationary car. As a result of the accident, the Pursuer sustained fractures to his right wrist and right knee.

Summary of Evidence

The Pursuer raised an action for damages over the defender’s “negligence”. They submitted in evidence that the Defender carried out an emergency stop and “primary liability was established.”

The Defender admitted to carrying out an emergency stop but denied liability, arguing that the motorcyclist was to blame because he was riding “too close” to her and was travelling “too fast” and that, in any event, he could have avoided the collision.

Summary of the Decision

In making his decision, Sheriff McGowan ruled that the Defender, who braked suddenly because she had become “apprehensive” at the sight of the motorcycle approaching from behind, was entirely at fault for the accident. The Defender had no reason to brake and could have slowed down to allow the Pursuer to overtake. The advice in the Highway Code was to drive steadily without sudden changes of speed or direction. The Defender breached her duty of care to the Pursuer and her negligence was the cause of the accident.

The Sheriff also considered whether the Pursuer’s actions were blameworthy. In making his decision, he noted here was “no single rule which specifies the distance which should separate two vehicles travelling one behind the other”. The rule of reasonable care to the vehicle in front cannot require such a wide distance that every possible risk could be prevented.  Accordingly,  “the mere fact of one vehicle having collided with the rear of another vehicle in front does not of itself give rise to the presumption that the driver of the following vehicle has been negligent”, but the following driver is expected to drive in such a fashion as will enable him to deal successfully with all traffic exigencies “reasonably to be anticipated”.

Sheriff McGowan accepted that the Pursuer was travelling 50-60m behind the car. The Sheriff also accepted that the Pursuer had no time to react and had made attempts to bring his motorcycle under control.

The motorcyclist was awarded nearly £50,000 in damages because the vehicle in front caused an unnecessary “emergency stop”.

Result for future cases

The courts will not automatically hold the driver of the rear vehicle at fault for a rear-end collision. In deciding negligence, the Sheriff will consider the conduct of both parties. The Court will have to consider whether the conduct of the leading vehicle would result in a finding of fault or contributory negligence.


Jennifer Rowlinson

Jennifer Rowlinson

Personal Injury Team

“I particularly enjoy being involved in court hearings and helping my client’s feel supported through the court process from beginning to end”

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