Intervening Causes in Personal Injury Cases
What is an Intervening Cause in Relation to a Personal Injury Claim or Lawsuit?
One of the elements of proving negligence in a personal injury claim is causation. To be awarded damages, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty of care, he breached that duty, the victim suffered damages, and those damages were directly caused by the defendant’s actions.
The defendant can only be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries if the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the victim’s injuries. This means that a direct link must exist between the defendant’s actions and the injury. Occasionally, the defendant will be able to assert an affirmative defense such as an intervening cause. An intervening cause may absolve the defendant from liability; however, it typically will not absolve the defendant on the sole argument that it is an intervening cause.
What is an Intervening Cause?
Generally, an intervening cause breaks the link between the defendant’s action and the injury caused. There are several requirements that must be satisfied before an event can be labeled an intervening cause. To be classified as an intervening cause the event must have occurred after the defendant’s negligent action, but before the victim’s injury occurred. Additionally, this intervening cause must have actually caused the injury. If all these elements are met, the event can be deemed an intervening cause by the court and relinquish the defense from liability. For example, say you own a restaurant that is occasionally run by a generator located in the back alley. You spill gasoline while trying to refuel the generator and fail to clean it up. Then one of your kitchen staff goes in the back alley for a cigarette break and when finished accidentally flings the lit cigarette into the puddle of gasoline and causes an explosion of fire. This cigarette is considered the intervening cause for the explosion and fire. It occurred after your negligent actions and is the direct cause of the injuries sustained. However, even though this is an intervening cause, it will not necessarily release you from your legal obligation.
To absolve you from being responsible for any damages the intervening cause must also be a superseding cause. Like an intervening cause, the superseding cause occurs after the defendant’s negligent actions, but before the resulting injury. A superseding cause is the actual cause of the injury, but unlike a regular intervening cause, the harm was not foreseeable. Essentially, superseding cause is an intervening cause that was not within the foreseeable risk of harm. If the defendant can prove that the event was a superseding cause, and not merely an intervening cause, then they may be excused from being liable for any damages.
So what qualifies as a superseding cause? As discussed above, if you refuel the generator in the back alley and fail to clean up the spilled gasoline it is within the foreseeable risk of harm that someone may carelessly toss a lit cigarette into the flammable puddle. However, consider this alternative. Say you spill the gasoline and it forms a medium size puddle in the crevices of the ground. Later on a person is beat up by gang members, knocked unconscious, and the victim falls face first into the puddle. The gang members leave him and the victim ultimately drowns in the puddle of gasoline. Would this be considered a superseding cause relieving you of liability? It is likely that the court would find this to be a superseding cause. When you spill gasoline the fear of possible injury is due to the fact that it is highly flammable. Therefore the foreseeable risk of harm would be that someone would accidentally cause it to catch fire. It is absolutely not foreseeable that someone would become unconscious and drown in the puddle due to your failure to clean up.
Intentional Torts and Intervening Causes
There is also one more exception that would allow an intervening cause to excuse the defendant for liability. If the intervening cause is an intentional tort then the defendant would be no longer responsible for his negligence. Basically, if the person responsible for the intervening cause deliberately acted with the intent, they would then be responsible for all damages.
For example, if the kitchen worker intentionally threw his lit cigarette into the puddle of gasoline, and knew that it was gasoline, this would be considered a superseding cause instead of just a simple intervening cause. Since the kitchen staff knew that the puddle was gasoline and it is common knowledge that gasoline is highly combustible, it is logical to think that he intended to cause the resulting explosion and fire. This would absolve the original defendant from liability and entirely shift the blame to the kitchen worker.
The attorneys at Our Law Offices have over 20 years of experience handling personal injury cases. We are well versed in the discovery process and knowledgeable in uncovering evidence that can help determine fault. If you or your loved one has been involved in an accident you may have a claim for personal injury. To discuss your injury and potential claim for compensation, call Our Law Offices.