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Brannock & Humphries Triumphs In Phantom Motorist Appeal

If a ladder appears in the middle of a bridge, and no one saw how it got there, can the plaintiff argue that the ladder fell from a vehicle because the driver of the vehicle was negligent?

The answer to that question is yes, according to the First District Court of Appeal, which ruled today in favor of a Brannock & Humphries client who was seriously injured in a pile-up accident that occurred after a twelve-foot ladder appeared in the middle of the Buckman Bridge in Jacksonville.  The appellate court’s decision also shows that the arcane rule against “stacking inferences” doesn’t always mean that the plaintiff has to lose when her case is based on circumstantial evidence.

After the accident, the plaintiff sued an automobile insurer, claiming that she was entitled to uninsured motorist benefits because the accident was caused by a “phantom motorist” (that is, a driver whose identity is unknown) who negligently failed to secure the ladder to his or her motor vehicle.  As is typical in “phantom motorist” cases, the insurer fought back hard, arguing that perhaps the ladder didn’t fall off a vehicle at all, because it might have been thrown onto the bridge by a pedestrian.  Or if not that, the insurer argued, maybe the phantom motorist wasn’t negligent because he did everything necessary to secure the ladder to his vehicle and it fell off anyway.

The insurer based these arguments on an old legal doctrine called the rule against “stacking inferences,” which is often used to throw out cases that are based on circumstantial evidence—that is, cases where no one directly saw the negligent act.  But that didn’t happen here.  With the help of Brannock & Humphries’ advocacy, the First District Court of Appeal carefully analyzed the rule and determined that it did not bar the plaintiff’s case, so it affirmed the judgment that the plaintiff had won at trial.

The opinion can be found here.