Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Florida car accident case discussing circumstantial evidence as well as its limits. The case required the court to explain the rule against stacking inferences based on circumstantial evidence.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was riding as a passenger in a minivan that was being driven by a family member. The minivan was traveling over the Buckman Bridge when, about a mile onto the bridge, the driver of the minivan had to bring the vehicle to a stop because there was a ladder in the road.
Apparently, no one saw how the ladder ended up on the road; however, the plaintiff testified that she saw a motorist who had parked his truck parked on the side of the road and was focused on the ladder as though he was trying to retrieve it. As the minivan was stopped on the bridge, a Coca-Cola service vehicle rear-ended the minivan, injuring the plaintiff. The truck driver was never located.
The plaintiff filed a Florida car accident claim against Coca-Cola, which settled out of court. The plaintiff also filed a claim against her own insurance carrier under the uninsured motorist provision, claiming that the “phantom” driver who was responsible for ladder being in the road was liable for her injuries.
The insurance company denied liability, arguing that the plaintiff impermissibly stacked multiple inferences to establish the phantom driver’s liability. Specifically, the insurance company claimed that the plaintiff’s case required the court to make the following three inferences:
- an unidentified phantom motor vehicle was carrying the ladder;
- the owner or driver failed to make reasonable efforts to secure the ladder;
- the owner or driver’s failure to properly secure the ladder caused it to fall on the roadway.
The court rejected the insurance company’s arguments, and the jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
The Prohibition Against Stacking Inferences
Circumstantial evidence is evidence which requires an inference to reach the ultimate conclusion. In Florida personal injury cases, circumstantial evidence can be used to prove a plaintiff’s case. However, courts have held that a plaintiff cannot establish their case by stacking inference on top of inference. Thus, if a plaintiff intends to argue that the factfinder should make an additional inference based on circumstantial evidence, the plaintiff must establish the first inference to the exclusion of all other inferences.
The Court’s Analysis
The court concluded that the plaintiff’s claim did not impermissibly stack inferences. First, the court determined that the plaintiff’s claim only required two inferences, rather than three. Specifically, that the ladder fell from a phantom vehicle and that it fell because the operator of the phantom vehicle failed to secure it properly.
The court held that the plaintiff’s evidence established the first inference to the exclusion of all other inferences. Specifically, the court noted that the bridge was not a pedestrian bridge, there was no overpass, and the ladder was located about a mile onto the bridge. Given these facts, the court determined that any other explanation of how the ladder ended up on the bridge was improbable.
Having determined that the plaintiff’s first inference was established to the exclusion of all other inferences, the only inference remaining was that the ladder was improperly secured. The court noted that the jury resolved this inference in favor of the plaintiff and affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
Have You Been Injured in a Florida Car Accident?
If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a Florida car accident, the dedicated South Florida injury lawyers at Cecere Santana can help. We represent injury victims in all types of personal injury and wrongful death claims, including those arising from Florida motor vehicle accidents. To learn more, call 800-753-5529 to set up a free consultation with a dedicated South Florida personal injury lawyer today. Calling is free, and we will not bill you for our services unless we are able to assist you in recovering for your injuries.
See Additional Blog Posts:
Arbitration in Cases Against Florida Nursing Homes, South Florida Injury Attorneys Blog, November 29, 2018.
Florida Bicyclist Accidents Caused by Distracted Drivers, South Florida Injury Attorneys Blog, published December 5, 2018