In a famous case, a commuter runs for a train that’s just started rolling. The man sprints across the platform. A conductor on the train reaches out, pulling the man. Another railroad employee on the platform pushes him onto the train. A wrapped package falls out of the man’s hands onto the train tracks. The package, containing fireworks, explodes, rocking the train station, knocking over heavy metal scales at the other end of the platform, injuring a woman standing next to the scales.
An injury claim by Mrs. Palsgraf, the injured woman, against the Long Island Railroad was rejected by the majority opinion of the highest court in New York. The negligent train employees, the court stated, could never have known the package contained fireworks presenting a danger to someone on the far end of the platform. A duty owed, the court held, must be determined from the risk that can be reasonably foreseen under the circumstances.
Stated a different way, the court held a defendant owes a duty of care only to those who are in the reasonably foreseeable zone of danger. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, a legendary proximate cause case, included a strong dissent, and is debated in law schools and courts to the present.
Intervening Causes – Proximate Cause
There’s a saying “stuff happens”. OK, this is a paraphrase. But sometimes “stuff happens” causing an injury, then before there’s a chance to resolve the negligence claim an intervening event takes place, affecting the initial injury. The question is: who is responsible?
An intervening cause is an independent event coming after the original negligent act. A foreseeable intervening cause will not cut off the liability of the initial defendant. The defendant remains liable for its own original wrong, plus harm caused by intervening act.
Superseding Causes –Proximate Cause
A superseding cause on the other hand is an unforeseeable intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation between cause A and the ultimate injury.
Proximate Cause Cases
A teenager whose parents are out of town invites friends over. The teens bring alcohol. A 16-year-old boy falls asleep on the ground near a driveway. Another teenager backs her car, running over and seriously injuring the napping 16-year old.
In this Massachusetts case brought by the injured boy’s family against the boy who held the party and his family, the court held that a chance combination of the plaintiff falling asleep near a tree and the girl backing her vehicle without checking to see if anything was in her path conclusively broke the chain of causation from the defendant’s negligence, if any. The unforeseeable action of the girl was a superseding cause, cutting off any liability of the booze party host.
Examples of foreseeable intervening causes that do not cut off liability of the original negligence? Medical malpractice by those treating the initial accident injuries. Subsequent accidents if the original injury caused by the Defendant’s actions were a substantial cause of the accident leading to further injuries. Subsequent disease caused by impairment of the plaintiff’s health resulting from the initial injury by defendant.
What are some superseding causes that will cut off the original defendant’s liability? Acts of God such as storm damage. Criminal acts or other intentional conduct by a third person.
Proximate Cause Definition and Application
Proximate cause requires an event sufficiently connected to the claimed injury to be held to be the cause of that injury.
Applying the legal concepts requires case by case analysis of the facts. For example although a criminal act by a third person generally cuts off liability, this rule can be rejected where, for example, a landowner is well aware that criminal activity has occurred on a premises and takes no action reasonably protecting visitors such as lighting, warnings or other security precautions.
Another blog article focuses on causation as the most often overlooked but essential element in negligence law. Failing to establish causation brings explosive results.