In Extensive Treatment of Proximate Cause, Court of Appeals Reinstates Cross Claims Against Defendant, But Denies Non-Appealing Plaintiff Same Relief

In Hain v Jamison (No. 201) previewed here, the Court of Appeals reversed an order of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department that had dismissed all claims against a farm that owned an escaped calf that the decedent had stopped her car to help out of the middle of the road. The Fourth Department had held that the farm’s alleged negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident, as a matter of law, because allowing the calf to escape merely furnished the occasion for the calf to be in the road where the accident occurred, but did not force the decedent to stop her car, get out of the car, or stand in the middle of the road.

The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. In an extensive treatment of the Court’s proximate cause jurisprudence, the Court acknowledges that the “line between those intervening acts which sever the chain of causation and those which do not cannot be drawn with precision” (Opn, at 8). The Court explained, proximate cause is a uniquely fact-specific inquiry, involving evaluation of factors including: “the foreseeability of the event resulting in injury; the passage of time between the originally negligent act and the intervening act; the spatial gap, if any, between the original act and the intervening act; whether the original act of negligence was a completed occurrence or was ongoing at the time of the intervening act; whether and, if so, what other forces combined to bring about the harm; as well as public policy considerations regarding the scope of liability” (id.).

The Court noted that the most important factor is usually the foreseeability of event. An event is foreseeable for proximate cause purposes, the Court explained, “where the risk of harm created by a defendant’s conduct corresponds to that which actually results — absent an extraordinary intervening act or significant facts weighing in favor of attenuation” (id.). In such a case, the Court held, proximate cause is an issue of fact for the fact-finder to decide.

There are rare circumstances, however, where proximate cause may be resolved as a matter of law, the Court held, such as where “a defendant’s negligence merely created the opportunity for, but did not cause, the event that resulted in harm” (Opn, at 9). The Court’s case law identifies two distinguishing features where the issue of proximate cause can be resolved as a matter of law: (1) “the risk created by the original negligence was not the risk that materialized into harm; in other words, the intervening act was unforeseeable” (Opn, at 11); or (2) “even if there was some similarity between the risk created and the actual harm, the defendant’s acts of negligence had ceased, and merely fortuitously placed the plaintiff in a location or position in which a secondary and separate instance of negligence acted independently upon the plaintiff to produce harm” (id.).

In this case, the Court held that neither of the two instances identified for when proximate cause can be resolved on a motion was present. Instead, the Court held, a rational fact-finder could conclude that the farm’s alleged negligence in failing to secure the calf or retrieve it after it had escaped contributed to the accident, and that the decedent’s actions in getting out of her car to assist the calf were foreseeable. Thus, the Court denied the farm’s motion for summary judgment dismissing all claims against it.

Notably here, however, although the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s order and reinstated the cross claims of the appealing defendant car owner against the farm, the Court noted that it lacked jurisdiction to award the same relief to the plaintiff, who had not sought leave to appeal from the Appellate Division’s order. Because the plaintiff never appealed, he was not entitled to the same reinstatement of claims granted to the defendant car owner. That is a harsh result for the plaintiff if the jury at trial eventually apportions some fault to the farm, but it emphasizes the importance of seeking relief from the appellate courts when you are aggrieved.

The Court of Appeals’ decision can be found here.

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