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Oct. 30 Torts: Proximate Causation

Torts

We’ve been talking about proximate cause–an issue that isn’t as easy as it looks. It would seem like it’s easy to determine the causes between the breach of a duty and the harm, but that’s not always the case. I’ll spare you the previous cases we’ve looked at and start with Wagon Mound I and Wagon Mound II. The facts of each case are the same. There was a ship in a harbor about 600 feet away from the dock, and two other ships were docked at the dock. The first ship emptied oil into the harbor. The oil spread over the water to the dock. Then in a strange turn of events, some molten metal fell on a piece of cotton that was floating on the water. The oil ignited and a fire destroyed the dock and the two ships.
Wagon Mound I was the suit by the dock. The court held that a man is responsible for the probable consequences of his acts if they were foreseeable. Basically, the man who emptied the oil couldn’t have foreseen a fire started by cotton and molten metal. The court essentially says that you have to foresee the actual harm, so if you’re going to claim fire, you have to foresee fire. You don’t however, have to foresee the degree. Wagon Mound I is pretty restrictive when it comes to how easy it is to recover. Wagon Mound II is another story though.
Wagon Mound II comes from the same facts, but this suit was brought by the owners of the ships. The court held that if it’s clear that the reasonable man would have realized or foreseen and prevented the risk, then he’s liable for damages. The court said that it was reasonable for the chief engineer to foresee the risk and that the only way not to eliminate the risk was to have a valid reason not to. This ruling was more expansive than that in Wagon Mound I because it would be easier for someone to collect. There are a lot of cases that range from incredibly restrictive to incredibly expansive. My question is what direction should I go?
In yet another proximate cause cause, Palsgraf v. Long Island RR (the fireworks one), the court held that the risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed. Thus, if there’s nothing that says you should have a heightened duty, you don’t. One example from the opinion is if there’s a bundle of newspaper that has a can of dynamite inside, you don’t have a heightened duty because there’s nothing that tells you to have to take more precautions that usual. On the other hand, if you’re shooting, you have a duty of prevision, but other acts aren’t so dangerous and require less duty.

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November 1, 2006 - Posted by | Torts

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