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Rear-End Collision Goes to Jury on Contrib

In plaintiff’s personal injury action against the driver of a semi-trailer truck that rear-ended her SUV on Interstate 81 in Frederick County, traveling during snow and freezing rain, the Harrisonburg U.S. District Court denies defendant’s motion for summary judgment alleging plaintiff was contributorily negligent.

First, the court denies defendant’s motion to strike plaintiff’s opposition to summary judgment, filed some two weeks after the deadline imposed by the court’s scheduling order, as her delay did not significantly interfere with the judicial process.

If defendant driver is found to be liable for plaintiff’s injuries from the accident, such liability will be imputed to SDR Trucking under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Because negligence is a state law cause of action, Virginia law governs the substantive issues in this case. Virginia imposes a pure contributory negligence rule. If defendant show that plaintiff’s contributory negligence proximately caused the accident, her claim must fail even if defendant was also negligent.

Defendants rather loosely characterize the “undisputed facts” in this case. For example, plaintiff testified that she “tapped” on her brakes and her “rear tires fishtailed,” not that she “slammed” her brakes or “lost complete control.” The court may not make credibility determinations or resolve material factual disagreements in ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Even if the events surrounding the accident were clear, it is unlikely the court would decide plaintiff’s actions constituted contributory negligence as a matter of law. The issue of whether a plaintiff is guilty of contributory negligence is ordinarily a question of fact to be decided by the fact finder. This is one of the ordinary cases. The parties have differing views of plaintiff’s conduct prior to the accident and disagree as to whether she was careless in causing the accident. Resolution of those disputes must be undertaken by a jury.

The court will deny defendants’ motion for summary judgment on contributory negligence grounds.

The court also rejects defendant’s request that it determine, as a matter of law, that defendant driver was not negligent in operating his truck. A trooper issued the driver a citation for following too closely in violation of Va. Code § 46.2-816, and defendant paid the fine associated with the citation. Prepayment of a traffic citation fine operates as a plea of guilty and holds the same force and effect as a judgment of court. While his prepayment of the fine does not conclusively establish his liability in this case, his judicial admission that he followed plaintiff too closely forecloses summary judgment.

Defendants’ motion to strike and motion for summary judgment are denied.

Leary v. Delarosa (Urbanski) No. 5:16cv43, June 21, 2017; USDC at Harrisonburg, Va; Alan J. Cilman for plaintiff; Amy E. McLaren for defendant. VLW 017-3-324, 12 pp.

VLW 017-3-324