first-year law review

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Oct. 31-Nov. 1 Torts: Intervening causes

We started talking about intervening causes as they relate to proximate causation. The first case was Derdiarian v. Felix Contracting Corp. in which the plaintiff was working in an excavation area in the street. A driver had a seizure and went into the area. The car hit the plaintiff and a bucket of molten metal that he was working with. Not only did he suffer injuries from the car, but he was also severely burned by the metal. The defendant, the contractor, said that it was impossible to foresee a man having a seizure while driving, crashing into the work area, hitting a workman, and spraying him with molten metal. The court held, however, that when the acts of a third person intervene between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury, the causal connection isn’t automatically severed. If the intervening act is extraordinary and not foreseeable in the normal course of events or so far removed from the defendant’s conduct, it may break the chain of causation. The precise manner of the event doesn’t have to be anticipated, however. If the risk of the intervening act is the same risk which injures the plaintiff, the act wasn’t a superseding cause. In this case, the defendant hadn’t erected a barrier that would have stopped the car, and while the specific nature of the cause of injury wasn’t specifically foreseen, getting hurt by a car could have been. So in this way, an intervening cause doesn’t cut the chain of causation.

The next case we read was Watson v. Kentucky & Indiana Bridge & RR Co. In this case, a tanker derailed and spilled a considerable amount of gasoline onto the street. A man, Duerr, was walking by and somehow it the vapors on fire. Some people said he was lighting a cigar and others said he intentionally threw the match in to blow up the tanker. In any case, the plaintiff was a bystander who was injured in the explosion. (Must have been one heck of an explosion) The defendant wanted to argue that Duerr’s act was sufficient to cut the chain of causation because it wasn’t foreseen. The court held that the mere fact that the concurrent cause or intervening act was unforeseen will not relieve the defendant guilty of primary negligence from liability, but if the intervening act is something so unexpected that it couldn’t be anticipated, he isn’t liable. He isn’t bound to anticipate the criminal acts of others by which damage is inflicted. The court goes on further and says that if Duerr lit the gasoline on purpose, it would be a criminal act and the defendant wouldn’t be held responsible for not foreseeing a criminal act. The case had to go back to the jury to decide if Duerr acted negligently or criminally. The point of this case was that just because something is unforeseen, it doesn’t mean that chain of causation is broken, though some unforeseeable things that are very unexpected may cut that chain.

Our final case for the day was Fuller v. Preis. Here, Preis hit Lewis’s car while driving. Lewis thought he was fine, but then started to have epileptic seizures. After seven months, Lewis committed suicide. Fuller, the executor, sued Preis for Lewis’s death. The court held that although suicide is a superseding cause, suicide isn’t a superseding cause for negligence law precluding liability. In tort law, one may retain the power to intend and know, but still have an irresistible impulse to act, and therefore be incapable of voluntary act. This means that when suicide is voluntary, it’s a third person cutting the chain. If it’s not voluntary though, the chain isn’t cut. Here, it was theorized that Lewis suffered brain damage that led to his eventual suicide and Preis was responsible for the brain damage.

Most of the cases for today got at causes that don’t break the chain of causation. It seems like proximate cause covers a lot of possibilities, but not all of them.



November 2, 2006 - Posted by | Torts

1 Comment »

  1. thanks for the post–saved me in torts class today!

    Comment by singlemomhood | October 1, 2007 | Reply

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