from New York to Virginia or during their stay in Virginia. It was not until the vehicle approached the toll booth that the brakes failed. According to Mrs. Williams, the defendant pumped the brake pedal repeatedly to no avail. The witness described how the defendant undertook evasive driving action in an effort to avoid striking a passenger vehicle.
The plaintiff has advanced several arguments in support of the motion for a new trial, only one of which merits discussion. It is the contention of the plaintiffs that in order for a defendant in a case involving a rear-end collision to properly rely upon the defense of sudden and unexpected brake failure, the defendant must show the precise nature of the mechanical defect which led to the brake failure and that such mechanical defect could not have been discovered prior to the accident by a reasonable inspection of the automobile. Defendant claims, on the other hand, that proof of a reasonable inspection and sudden brake failure is sufficient to rebut the inference of negligence arising from a rear-end collision caused by brake failure. The issue presented for the Court's determination is whether Maryland law requires a defendant who claims sudden brake failure as the cause of the accident to prove the exact nature of the defect that led to the brake failure.
Under the law of Maryland, the fact of a rear-end collision due to brake failure gives rise to a prima facie case of negligence, which may then be rebutted by a showing of adequate inspection and sudden unexpected failure. Miller v. Reilly, 21 Md. App. 465, 319 A. 2d 553 (1974); Mintzer v. Miller, 249 Md. 506, 240 A. 2d 262 (1968). Proof of the accident, coupled with the defendants' explanation of brake failure, shifts to the defendant the burden of going forward with the evidence to establish proper and adequate inspection and a sudden failure without warning. Miller v. Reilly, supra ; Garfinkle v. Birnios, 232 Md. 402, 194 A. 2d 91 (1963). In light of the nature of the collision at the toll plaza, and defendant's assertion that he was unable to stop his vehicle due to the absence of brakes, the burden of showing proper inspection and an unexpected brake failure shifted to the defendant. The record contained sufficient evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that the defendant controverted the inference of negligence.
Plaintiffs, nevertheless, argue that defendant's burden is greater than that described above. As previously mentioned, plaintiffs contend that defendant must show the exact nature of the mechanical defect in order to assert the defense of brake failure and to be entitled to a jury instruction thereon. The bottom line of plaintiffs' argument is that the jury must be apprised of the precise defect in order to determine whether the defect would have been discovered by a reasonable inspection by the owner.
The Court's research has not disclosed a Maryland case in which a defendant relying on the defense of sudden brake failure was required to specify the exact nature of the brake defect. In several Maryland decisions involving a rear-end collision the precise defect was the subject of testimony by an automobile mechanic or otherwise qualified witness. See, Currie v. U.S., 312 F.2d 1 (4th Cir. 1963); Garfinkle v. Birnios, supra. However, the Court does not construe Maryland law to require a defendant who claims sudden brake failure to show the precise nature of the mechanical defect that led to the brake failure.
In Miller v. Reilly, the defendant testified that the foot brake "went right to the floor" as she attempted to stop the vehicle at a traffic signal. In the course of her testimony, the defendant, who was driving home from work at the time of the accident, stated that she had not encountered any problems with the brakes either driving to work or returning home until the brakes failed at the traffic light. The defendant's father, the owner of the car, testified that new brakes had been installed on the vehicle approximately ten months before the accident and that the brakes had been adjusted one month prior to the collision. No evidence was presented as to the precise cause of the brake failure. Relying on Wood v. Johnson, 242 Md. 446, 219 A. 2d 231 (1966), and Sothoron v. West, 180 Md. 539, 26 A. 2d 16 (1942), the Maryland appellate court affirmed the trial court's refusal to direct a verdict for the plaintiffs.
The court in the Sothoron case reversed a judgment entered in favor of the defendant by a lower court sitting without a jury. The finding of liability was based on the defendant-driver's failure to test the brakes before their first use in the descent of a steep hill. A close reading of the decision suggests that if the defendant had simply tested the brakes prior to the accident and had found them to be operable a verdict for the defendant would have been proper despite the eventual brake failure. The court stated at 26 A. 2d p. 18: "If such a test [foot test] shows the brakes in working order, and then they suddenly fail, the driver may not be liable for negligence in driving with them."
Several Maryland decisions have dealt with the question of the extent of the evidentiary burden imposed upon a defendant who claims brake failure to be the cause of a rear-end collision. In Sothoron, the court declared:
"The better and more general rule, however, seems to be that failure of brakes to operate makes only a prima facie case which the driver may defend by showing proper inspection and a sudden failure without warning."