A four-vehicle automobile accident in Benedict, Maryland, around noon on Friday, September 9, 2011 killed two local senior citizens and injured at least three others. Franz and Evelyn Isabelle Sommer, a married couple, were driving east on Route 231 in their Ford Focus near the Patuxent River Bridge when a Penske rental truck rear-ended their vehicle. The collision caused the Sommers’ vehicle to veer into the westbound lane of Route 231, where it collided head-on with a Mitsubishi Galant. The Penske truck went on to strike a Saturn L200 in the westbound lane. The Sommers’ car and the Saturn L200 were wedged under the Penske truck.
Five people were taken to the hospital for injuries: Deborah Ellen Parkinson, the driver of the Galant; Kimberly Leighanne Garcia, the driver of the Saturn and two children who were in her car; and Michael Anthony Duckett, the driver of the Penske truck. Police report that none of the injuries were life-threatening. A passenger in the truck was unharmed, according to police on the scene. According to witnesses, Parkinson’s vehicle flipped over in the accident, and she had to be pulled out by firefighters.
Investigators have concluded that Duckett’s failure to control the speed of the truck caused the accident, and that alcohol was not a factor. Criminal charges have not yet been filed, pending the completion of the investigation. Duckett could potentially face up to ten years in prison if he is charged under Maryland’s “manslaughter by vehicle” statute, which covers deaths resulting from “driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a grossly negligent manner.”
In addition to any potential criminal charges, the driver of the truck could also face civil liability to all of the people injured in the accident, from a wrongful death claim by relatives of the Sommers to injury claims by the other drivers and their passengers. The driver of the truck is responsible not only for the actual rear-end collision of his truck and the Sommers’ vehicle, but for every collision directly caused by that collision. At least three collisions occurred in this case, causing multiple injuries.
A popular notion is that a driver who rear-ends another driver is by definition “at fault.” This is not always the case, but it is a useful principle. If the driver of the rear-ended vehicle behaved negligently, such as braking abruptly without good cause, then both drivers may be at fault. If a driver swerves into a lane of traffic and is rear-ended by a car already in that lane, the swerving driver is probably 100% at fault. A driver who rear ends a vehicle because he was pushed into the car after being rear-ended himself should not be liable, but the driver doing the original rear-ending might be liable for all collisions in that situation. A better general principle to apply to rear-end collisions might be that the driver who creates the conditions leading to the rear-end collision should be primarily liable, and that the driver is liable for injuries caused by those collisions.