Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Torts: Proximate Cause

Whenever dealing with a negligence question in which you have to determine whether Plaintiff's injury was proximately caused by the acts of Defendant, you should divide the analysis into two components: (1): Whether the plaintiff is a foreseeable plaintiff; and (2) Whether the injury, or harm caused to Plaintiff was foreseeable.

The Foreseeable Plaintiff:

Most law students at some point throughout law school will have read the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. In Palsgraf, a railroad guard attempted to pull a passenger into the railroad car and the guard on the platform attempted to push the passenger into the car from behind. The passenger was holding a package which fell on the rails. Unfortunately, the package, which was wrapped in newspaper, contained fireworks, and the package exploded when it hit the rails. The shock from the explosion knocked down scales at the other end of the platform, which injured Palsgraf. Palsgraf sued the railroad, claiming her injury resulted from negligent acts of the employees. And then the debate began.

Justice Cardozo, writing for the majority, stated that there was no way that the guards could have known that the package wrapped in newspaper was dangerous, and that pushing the passenger would thereby cause an explosion, leading to a series of actions causing Palsgraf's injuries. In other words, Cardozo focused on the mindset of the guards; without any perception that their actions could harm Palsgraf, even though the guards breached a duty of care in attempting to pull a passenger onto the train, there was no duty owed to Palsgraf, and therefore no negligence for which to impose liability. Justice Andrews, on the other hand, wrote a dissent in which he would have allowed recovery to any person (Palsgraf included) thereby harmed due to a breach of the guards' duty of care.

For MBE purposes, the majority (Cardozo) opinion applies; namely, a defendant owes a duty of care only to foreseeable plaintiffs (ie, those individuals who are within the risk of harm created by defendant's unreasonable conduct).

Forseeability of Harm

When analyzing foreseeability of harm, and determining whether the harm caused to Plaintiff was sufficiently foreseeable to justify holding Defendant liable for negligence, you'll need to determine whether intervening causes are foreseeable or unforeseeable. If unforeseeable, then they are deemed superseding, and liability of Defendant is cut off. A superseding cause, specifically, is an unforeseeable intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation between the initial wrongful act and the ultimate injury. There are four categories of superseding causes that you should keep in mind: (1) Acts of God; (2) Criminal acts of third persons; (3) Intentional torts of third persons; and (4) Extraordinary forms of negligent conduct (ie, gross negligence). So, for example, if X is negligent and injures a foreseeable plaintiff, Y, and while Y is in the hospital getting treated for those injuries, there is an earthquake (an "act of God") causing further injuries to Y, though X will be liable for the injuries caused by his negligent acts, X will not be liable for the injuries caused by the earthquake, which was a superseding cause cutting off X's liability.

A foreseeable intervening cause, on the other hand, will not cut off the liability of Defendant, and Defendant will be liable for harm caused by foreseeable intervening causes. Some heavily tested foreseeable intervening causes are: (1) Negligence of rescuers ("danger invites rescue"); (2) Subsequent medical malpractice; (3) Subsequent disease contracted because of the impairment of Plaintiff's health resulting from the original injury caused by Defendant; and (4) Subsequent accidents causing injuries to Plaintiff if the original injury caused by Defendant's actions was a substantial cause of the accident leading to further injuries to Plaintiff. As an example assume that X is negligent and injures a foreseeable plaintiff, Y. If Z comes to the rescue of Y, and rather than helping Y, negligently injures Y to a greater extent than Y was injured by X, X will be liable not only for the injuries to Y caused by X, but also the injuries to Y caused by Z, the rescuer. The negligent rescue of Z was a foreseeable intervening cause, and any harm caused therefrom will not cut off X's liability.

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