Proximate Cause - Alternative Instruction

Posted Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Ed Harper

Proximate Cause – Alternative Instruction

Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 15.01.01 states the following: “The cause of an [injury][event] is a proximate cause if it is related to the injury/event in two ways: (1) the cause produced the injury/event in a direct sequence [unbroken by any superseding cause], and (2) the injury/event would not have happened in the absence of the cause. There may be more than one proximate cause of an injury/event.”

The committee for jury instructions has provided this second instruction on proximate cause due to the confusion existing with the first instruction. (See WPI 15.01). An issue may arise with the requirement of a direct sequence of events. Problems also exist with the idea of a superseding (stepping in the place of) cause. The addition of the phrase “would not have happened in the absence of the cause” provides a little bit more clarity.

The case, Humes v. Fritz, 125 Wn.App. 477, 105 P.3d 1000 (2005) (see blog post on Duty to See Jury Instruction) provides some illumination when this jury instruction should be utilized. Plaintiff Humes jumped out of his crane operator’s seat to the ground when it appeared his crane was going to tip over, due to the actions of an employee of Fritz. Counsel for Fritz attempted to prevent this instruction from being given to the jury, by insisting on the phrase “independent” cause be inserted.

“The Fritz defendants claim that the trial court erred in giving an instruction on proximate cause that did not include the phrase ‘unbroken by any new independent cause.’” The court was not swayed. “This claim is without merit because the phrase indeed refers to an intervening cause. Under the doctrine of superseding cause, an independent cause that breaks the causal connection between the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injury is an intervening cause of the injury.” Humes, at 498-499. However, the court maintained this instruction, and the wording provided sufficient justification for the actions of the Plaintiff.

The court articulated what the plaintiff did here: “A plaintiff’s action may rise to the level of an independent, superseding cause of injury only when the act is so highly extraordinary or unexpected that it can be said to fall outside the realm of reasonable foreseeability.” Humes, at 500. (emphasis added.)

This points out the issue of a superseding cause being truly independent has to do with foreseeability – and the actions leading to an injury were either likely to occur or not likely to occur. Thus, the likelihood of the crane operator jumping out of the cab was not unforeseeable here. Therefore, the court was justified in refusing to give the proximate cause instruction with the phrase “independent” cause. Additionally, the court will jump in and ascertain, in their minds, how unexpected or extraordinary the actions were of the various players. This may seem like fact-finding, and it likely is, but the gatekeeper of the evidence and jury instructions (the judge) must evaluate facts and various factors before these instructions are given to the ultimate fact-finder, the jury.

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