How do lawyers know when you’re following too close?

Parents with teenagers often times have to ask a lot of questions to get to the bottom of "what went on"? Most parents learn the ropes by experience and common sense. The same goes for trial lawyers, judges and juries.

So how do lawyers know when the witness who was a driver in a crash was following too close? In this case someone was, or did someone else cut the rear driver off?

Probably 90% of rear end collisions occur because of speed, attention by the driver and following too close to the forward car or truck. Take a look at this accident resulting in a three-vehicle crash on I-380 in Iowa. This one took place on November 13, 2009.

In this accident we have Randy Thomas following Trudi Pillard who is following Josef Flanter. Poor Mr. Flanter, it seems his only role is he was paying attention. They are on Interstate 380 near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They were all heading towards Cedar Rapids, as the officer has them heading northbound. The police report by Trooper J. Meggers from Post 11 notes the collision location is mile marker 30 in Linn County. Read what Trooper Meggers says about the sequence of the collisions between these three cars and ask yourself what you think happened that lead up to the collisions.


Here is who was involved in the collision and the corresponding numbers the officer assigned to each. You may need to reread the trooper's description.

Car 1: Randy Thomas driving a 1993 Chevrolet Blazer – he’s 47 and driving the car behind the other two.

Car 2: Trudi Pillard is driving a 2007 Chevy ADS – she’s 46 and driving the middle car.

Car 3: And Josef Flanter is driving is driving a Chevy Tahoe – he’s 65 and he’s driving the lead car.

For those of you who don’t know I-380 is a four-lane divided highway with an interstate speed limit. Like your state highways cars are flying faster than the posted speed limit, driving too close to the car in front for comfort and all in a hurry to get someplace sooner rather than later. Some drivers are on cell phones, others eating, drinking and some texting. They change lanes without using a turn signal; they cut drivers off and cut in front of drivers who do leave enough room between the car in front of their car-truck-semi or motorcycle, causing two cars that did have enough room between them to now be following too close.

Of course I’m also interested in the sequence of the two or three collision. The officer describes car 2 crashing first into the rear of 3, followed by car 1 crashing into car 2. Car 3 slowed for a car ahead of him; so you know that the driver of car 2 was in all likelihood driving too fast, following too close and perhaps not paying enough attention to what was going on around him.

As you can see this is an interesting case for us to discuss because there may be two at-fault drivers and that fact alone should raise questions in your mind about what they were doing just prior to the collision. Generally speaking the driver of vehicle 2 struck vehicle 3 and then by the officer’s description vehicle 1 ran into the back of vehicle 2. We don't know if vehicle 3 suffered two collisions; meaning when 1 ran into 2 did 1 then strike 3 again? Remember the officer didn’t see the accident he pieces together his report from what people at the accident scene tell him and from what the physical evidence (mostly the car damage) looks like to him.

So we can’t just take his description as the Gospel truth; we need to make sure that the trooper’s description matches the physical evidence what the drivers and witnesses say happened. Which brings up a good point; I wasn’t there either so I make no conclusions about exactly what did occurred. Lawyers are never there and if they are they aren't going to be a lawyer in the case; they instead will be a witness. But as a lawyer who for 30 years who has dealt with car accidents, I’ve become accustomed to reading accident reports and getting hunches about what probably caused the collision. From there I frame my questions. Also as a parent and having listened to four kids tell me their teenage version of what happened, I’ve gotten smarter with time. My kids will tell you I'd often say, "That's an interesting answer but how about you answer my question."

So what do you think happened? Think first and read second.

Assuming the officer’s description to be accurate, why do you think Trudi Pillard ran into the rear of Josef Flanter? And then ask yourself why Randy Thomas crashed into Trudi’s car. What keeps cars from colliding on the highway? And what causes cars to crash at highway speeds?

Here’s what I think and the reasons are as plain as the nose on your face; you and I see this every day.

As lawyers, jurors and judges the main issue to determine is fault. Who is at fault is what you the jury need to determine. Most people want to answer a different question that has nothing to do with making driver’s responsible drivers. “What is at fault?” This is a misleading question allowing the issues of responsibility to be skirted and does nothing to promote safe driving habits. Let me explain. It's not about what is at fault, it's about who is at fault.

As a client you need to think like the lawyer’s do or at least understand how we think to anticipate where the legal theories will lead your case.

So as a lawyer, my first series of questions center on whether car 2 cut into the space between 1 and 3.

Series 2 of questions work on a better understanding of how fast each car was driving.

Series 3 questions wants to know more about how long cars 1 and 2 had been traveling behind the involved cars.

Series 4 goes to what distractions, if any, were occurring in each car, with the exception of poor Mr. Flanter.

Remember the case is going to focus on speeds, following too close and distractions. Distracted drivers cause accidents. Inconsiderate and aggressive drivers cause serious and deadly accidents. Inexperienced drivers do as well.

To be a good witness, client, trial lawyer, judge or juror you need to think like a parent quizzing your teenager about a car accident they were involved in. Most every teenager wants to blame it on something other than what they did or didn’t do. The weather, an unidentified car or driver, the road conditions, the sun or some inanimate object that wasn't driving their car. As parents we know this and our parental mindset has to be aware of this point of view when talking to them about fault. So with a jaundiced eye about the explanation they give, as a parent, you’re required to probe further than their first explanation. To know where to go with questions we rely on common sense and life experiences of what probably happened. In other words we have to draw a probably conclusion to know what questions to ask. 

So when they say it was the car in front, common sense makes us question their speed, proper distances for speeds travelled and driver distractions.

Besides the drivers in this collision we also have several passengers who were injured and each has potential claims against all three drivers. There are four people noted on the report as having been injured, they include: Jennifer Willis, Maison Willis, Ruby Willis and the driver Trudi Pillard.

That’s enough for today, but come back tomorrow to read The Verdict blog/blawg where we will discuss other car-truck-semi-motorcycle accidents in Iowa. And as always if you are in an accident and need legal services we encourage you to call us sooner, rather than later.

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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