Florida Uninsured Motorist Benefits Affirmed After Road Debris Deemed Left by “Phantom” Vehicle

An appellate court recently affirmed a Florida car accident victim’s right to uninsured motorist benefits from her insurer after successfully arguing a 12-foot ladder left in the road had fallen from a truck whose owner/ driver were not identified. This personal injury case before Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals was interesting for the fact that:

  • It involved a phantom motor vehicle;
  • The court inferred the ladder in the road had fallen from a pickup truck that had parked in the right emergency lane;
  • The court inferred the ladder had fallen into the road (causing a chain collision) due to negligence in securing the ladder.Fort Lauderdale car accident lawyer

These conclusions were based primarily on circumstantial evidence and witness statements. Plaintiff’s uninsured motorist (UM) insurance carrier argued there was no proof of those last two points, the assertion relying wholly on circumstantial evidence and failing to exclude other possibilities. Defense sought a directed verdict in its favor. The court denied the motion and jurors decided the case in favor of plaintiff. The phantom vehicle was found 60 percent at-fault for the collision, while the soda company truck that rear-ended plaintiff’s vehicle when she made a sudden stop on the highway was 40 percent at-fault. The UM carrier is liable for damages caused by the “phantom vehicle.

What is a “Phantom Vehicle” in a Fort Lauderdale Uninsured Motorist Claim?

“Phantom vehicle” is a term used by auto insurers to describe a car or truck that left the scene of an accident unidentified. Unlike a hit-and-run, there is no actual collision with a phantom vehicle, but that motorist may nonetheless be at-fault. Some also call these “miss-and-run” accidents. Typically, it involves another motorist’s reckless or sudden movement that cause plaintiff to hit a third vehicle or to run off the road. In this case, it involved alleged negligence of the phantom vehicle’s driver to properly secure items within the truck, causing the ladder to come loose and fall from the truck, into the highway lane where it posed serious danger to other motorists.

Fort Lauderdale car accident lawyers at The Ansara Law Firm can explain that phantom vehicle cases can be challenging to prove because if the two vehicles don’t collide, there may be very little evidence another vehicle was involved at all, except for the word of the plaintiff. What plaintiff had going for her in this case was there were numerous witnesses who attested to the suspected phantom vehicle.

Plaintiff’s sister-in-law was driving, with plaintiff as front seat passenger, in the second lane of I-295 behind two other vehicles when suddenly, all three in the travel lane stopped abruptly because of the large ladder lying in the road. Seconds later, a soda company truck slammed into the rear of plaintiff’s vehicle, causing her serious injury.

Two independent witnesses told investigators that just before the crash, they observed the pickup truck in the far right emergency lane with a man standing outside the truck, seemingly focused on the ladder as if trying to retrieve it. However, the driver of that truck was not identified.

Plaintiff filed a claim against the soda company and its driver, which were later settled. As Fort Lauderdale car accident attorneys can explain, there is a rebuttable presumption of fault by a driver in the rear whenever there is a rear-end collision. Motorists have a responsibility to keep a safe distance from the vehicles ahead of them precisely for a scenario like this. Drivers are supposed to anticipate that there may be a sudden emergency ahead, whether it’s a traffic jam or a tire in the road, that would require the driver in the lead to make a sudden stop, and maintain enough space between their two vehicles to safely stop or maneuver away if that happens. Rebuttable presumptions are explained in F.S. 90.302. These are presumptions to be taken as fact by the court unless there is credible evidence sufficient to prove otherwise.

However, closure of the claim against the soda truck company wasn’t the end of it because someone was still liable for the ladder in the road that set off the chain of events. Here, the jury concluded plaintiff was entitled to UM benefits. Defense appealed, arguing plaintiff had “stacked inferences,” which is depending upon inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence as proof of one fact and then constructing another inference upon the initial reference to establish it as fact. This isn’t allowed unless plaintiff can show the original, basic inference was established to the exclusion of all other reasonable inferences. Basically, courts don’t want verdicts to be reached on the basis of speculation and conjecture. The appellate court, however, affirmed the verdict, finding the original inference (that the ladder fell from the phantom vehicle) was made to the exclusion of all reasonable others.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

State Farm v. Hanania, Dec. 10, 2018, Florida First District Court of Appeal

More Blog Entries:

When Your Florida DUI Injury Lawsuit Conflicts With Criminal Proceedings, Nov. 4, 2018, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Attorney blog

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