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Proximate Cause - Superceding Cause

Posted Thursday, January 05, 2017 by Ed Harper

Proximate Cause – Superseding Cause

WPI 15.05 – “A superseding cause is a new independent cause that breaks the chain of proximate causation between a defendant’s negligence and an injury/event.

If you find that the defendant was negligent but that the sole proximate cause of the injury/event was a later independent intervening cause that the defendant, in the exercise of ordinary care, could not reasonably have anticipated, then any negligence of the defendant is superseded in such negligence was not a proximate cause of the injury/event. If, however, you find that the defendant was negligent and that the no exercise of ordinary care, the defendant should reasonably have anticipated the later independent intervening cause/force/act, then that cause/force/act does not supersede defendant’s original negligence and you may find that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the injury/events.

“It is not necessary that the sequence of events or the particular resultant injury/event foreseeable. It is only necessary that the resultant injury/event fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should reasonably have anticipated.”

If however you find that the defendant, in the exercise of ordinary care, could not reasonably have anticipated the latter independent intervening cause then that causes does not supersede defendant’s original negligence and you may find that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the injury/event.

It is not necessary that the sequence of events where the particular resultant injury/event before seeable. It is only necessary that the resultant injury/event fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should reasonably have anticipated.

If the original negligence of the defendant is followed by a foreseeable event there is no superseding and interceding cause.

If however the independent intervening cause/event is not reasonably foreseeable, it is deemed to supersede the defendants original negligence. The defendant’s original negligence ceases to be the proximate cause. See estate of Keck by and through Cabe versus Blair. 71 Wn.App. 105, 850 6P. 2nd 740 (1993).

Foreseeability is normally a question of fact, as to which the trier of fact may consider the amount and nature of alcohol purchased for example the time of day, the presence of other minors on the president presents or in a vehicle and statements made by purchaser of alcohol. See the case Coker versus Armstrong cork. Or Rinks v. Bearrs, 83 Wn.App. 334, 921 P.2d 558 (1996).

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Negligence of Defendant Concurring with Other Causes

Posted Tuesday, January 03, 2017 by Ed Harper

Negligence of Defendant Concurring with Other Causes

WPI 15.04 states the following: “There may be more than one proximate cause of the same injury/event. If you find that the defendant was negligent in that such negligence was a proximate cause of injury or damage to the plaintiff, it is not a defense that some other force/cause or the act of some other person who is not a party to this lawsuit may also have been a proximate cause.

“However, if you find that the sole proximate cause injury/damage to the plaintiff was some other force/cause or the act of some other person who is not a party to this lawsuit, then your verdict should be for the defendant.”

This jury instruction points out there may be more than one proximate cause for the same injury. The acts of different persons or entities though may concur and/or coincide in producing the same injury. In such a case all would be liable. The question of whether or not the actors or participants are held jointly or separately liable is dependent on the number of factors set forth in RCW 4.22.030 and 4.22.070 both enacted as part of the 1986 Tort Reform Act.

The case Rollins v. King County Metro Transit, Wn.App. 370, 379 (2009) discusses this instruction: “How to instruct on damages will often depend upon the circumstances of the case, which is one reason for the discretion invested in the trial judge. Here, the practical question was how to focus the jury upon the damages caused by the negligence of the defendant (King County). The instructions accomplished that and properly stated the law. The court did not abuse its discretion.” Rollins, at 382.

In Rollins v. King County Metro the facts are as follows:

In May 2005 teenager Carmen Rollins and two of her friends were riding on the King County Metro bus.

After they boarded the bus, approximately 35-50 teenagers boarded the bus and started to intimidate young Carmen Rollins. An incident in the bus arose and horrible things were said to Ms. Rollins. Subsequently, Rollins and her friends began to be assaulted and brutally beaten.

Rollins and her friends attempted to call the police and were rebuffed. They also tried to exit the bus and were prevented from doing so.

At the same time the bus driver, an employee of the King County government, did not even react. The bus driver did nothing to assist Ms. Rollins and her friends and merely drove off after Carmen exited the bus. Finally, the police arrived and called for an ambulance. The jury found King County Metro caused damage in the amount of $138,520 for Ms. Rollins and $127,196 for one of her friends.

In this case, the plaintiff sought damages only for injuries caused by the negligent conduct of King County Metro and not the intentional conduct of the assailants. The plaintiff sued King County Metro alleging at neglected its duties as a common carrier and failing to maintain a safe environment.

“Jury instructions are sufficient if the permit each party to argue it’s theory of case, or not misleading, and properly inform the jury of the applicable long when read as a whole” See Rollins, at 382.

The jury here was instructed the plaintiffs have the burden of proof to show Metro was negligent, that Metro’s negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injury, that there may be more than one proximate cause of an injury, and that its verdict should be for Metro if it found the sole proximate cause of injury was a cause other than Metro’s negligence. (This is a quote from 148 Wn.App. 379)

How to instruct on damages will often depend on circumstances of the case here the practical question was how to focus the jury upon the damages caused by the negligence of the defendant. The instructions are accomplished that improperly state of the law. The court did not abuse its discretion Rollins, at 382.

The court further stated in calculating a damage award you must not include any damages that were caused by acts of the unknown assailant and proximately caused by negligence of the defendant any damages caused solely by the unknown assailant proximately caused by the negligence of defendant King County must be segregated from and not be part of any damage award against King County. Rollins.

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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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Proximate Cause - Does anyone really understand it?

Posted Tuesday, December 20, 2016 by Ed Harper

Proximate Cause - Does anyone really understand this legal phrase?

Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 15.01 states the following: “The term ‘proximate cause’ means a cause which in a direct sequence [unbroken by any superseding cause,] produces the [injury][event] complained of and without such [injury][event] would not have happened.” So here, the instruction from the bench attempts to articulate the most misunderstood concept in tort law. Proximate cause is deemed to be referring to a close relationship or nexus to an event. A British Judge, Lord Chancellor Bacon, in 1630 used the Latin phrase “causa proxima” or the law looks to the near cause – hence “proximate cause”. This instruction in essence is used to establish an event with sufficient a closeness in time argument, or proximity to an event. (Prosser & Keeton on Torts, section 42, at p. 273, fn. omitted.)

This applies to a negligence cause of action, where one has to establish duty, breach, proximate cause and damages. Looking at this individually, the breach of a duty is the failure to use reasonable care; damages can be the financial or physical effects of an injury; and proximate cause is the link between the two. Without proximate cause, you always lose your tort claim.

Thus, when incidents are convoluted in how they occurred, the defendant will sit back and attempt to show an inability of the plaintiff to establish proximate cause.

One such case is Schooley V. Pinch’s Deli Market 134 Wn.2d 468, 951 P.2d 749 (1998). This case involved the sale of alcohol to a minor. The court delved into the intricacy of the challenging issue of proximate cause when a young lady (Lori Schooley) was catastrophically injured when she dove into a shallow pool causing her quadriplegia. The issue in the case was whether the defendant, Pinch’s Deli, could be held liable for the injury to Ms. Schooley. Ms. Schooley, a minor, had been drinking alcohol provided to her by another minor. Ms. Schooley had no direct contact with the deli as the deli did not directly sell her the alcohol. However, another teenager provided the alcohol after purchasing the beer at Pinch’s Deli illegally.

Defendant Pinch’s Deli attempted to argue their actions were not the legal cause of Ms. Schooley’s injuries as their actions were too remote in time to be linked to the diving into the pool by Ms. Schooley. The Supreme Court of Washington disagreed, finding there was a duty owed to others who may imbibe the illegally obtained alcohol, and therefore there was a sufficient nexus to the incident in question. In other words, the drinking of alcohol by other minors was foreseeable when Pinch’s failed to act reasonably in failing to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors. Thus, the court held the deli’s actions were sufficiently related to the horrific injury of Ms. Schooley.

Therefore, proximate cause can be found and established. One of the underlying reasons for this includes the overriding public policy in seeking to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors and thus usage of alcohol by minors. Here, the prevention of the sale of alcohol to a minor is so important as a society we want to prevent this from occurring.

Thus, to hold the Deli is within the ambit of our society’s goal to restrict the usage of these illegal substances. The question must be answered affirmatively “The focus is on whether, as a matter of policy, the connection between the ultimate result and the act of the defendant is too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.” Schooley, at 478-479

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Nondelegable Duties

Posted Friday, December 16, 2016 by Ed Harper

Nondelegable Duties

Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 12.09 states the following: “(Fill in person or entity) is not relieved of its duty to (particular duty) by delegating or seeking to delegate that duty to another person or entity.” In the case of a business owner who hired a cleaning company to wax their floors, and if the floors were made too slippery, the business owner is not able to delegate the responsibility they owe to their invitee/customer. For example, it could read like this: “Acme Corp. is not relieved of its duty to provide a reasonably safe premises (having safe non-slippery floors) by delegating or seeking to delegate that duty to another person or entity.”

This jury instruction is for the purpose of articulating the possible factors necessary to obtain a finding of negligence. As former US President Harry S. Truman stated “The buck stops here.” Or in other words, one cannot shirk their responsibility to do or not do something.

Thus, this is also helpful to force the duty upon the defendant that this is a non delegable duty – something that cannot be delegated to someone else. In legal terms, this is called vicarious liability or being responsible for the actions of another. As Black’s Law Dictionary defines Vicarious Liability as “indirect legal responsibility”. Typically, it is how employers are found responsible for the actions of their employees.

The jury instruction committee in Washington has held this instruction should be used when dealing with a case involving subcontracted work is being performed. The jury is to be informed the duty to do something or not do something cannot be passed on to another. Jurors could be misled that the duty is passed on to the subcontractor, when that is not possible – either due to statute, regulation, common law, contract or franchise. Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, Section 71, at 511-12 (5th ed. 1984).

But negligence against one who may not have been involved in the actual motor vehicle collision or wrongful death or premises liability accident may not seem fair or just. However, as Prosser points out further “…the responsibility is so important to the community that the employer should not be permitted to transfer it to another.” Id. at 512. This instruction points out to the jury the need to assign responsibility on those who are acting as principals or supervisors for the one who is acting as an agent or employee. The Latin term is respondeat superior. This means a person in charge is found to be responsible because of their position of having control over another.

As the courts have articulated “nondelegable” is a “formidable word.” And should be used with caution. See Kelley v. Great Northern Railway Co. 59 Wn.2d 894, 904-05, 371 P.2d 528 (1962).

In Kelley, an employee was injured due to certain materials used in a cleaning operation while working for the Great Northern Railway. The injury was tried to a jury and the railroad objected to the use of this instruction. The instruction informed the jury of the nondelegable duty to exercise reasonable care to furnish its employees a reasonably safe place in which to work. In short, the railroad did not object to the instruction, just the usage of the word “nondelegable”. The court agreed with the railroad stating “We agree that it is a ‘formidable’ word, and that it was not necessary to use it to adequately instruct the jury. However, we are satisfied it’s use did not infect the verdict rendered with prejudicial error.”

This points out the fact that an appellate court can find an instruction improperly given, (because here there was no issue of having the work subcontracted out) but then conclude the error was harmless, not having an effect on the verdict. This is known as a harmless error, but an error nevertheless.

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