Causation Must Be Foreseeable In Order To Create Liability
Many of you may be familiar with an old board game called “Mouse Trap.” As you probably recall, the basic premise of this game was to string together a chain of contraptions that, when triggered together, would catch the mouse. It was, in effect, an attempt to turn a Rube Goldberg machine into a board game – after all, why simply use a boring old mouse trap when you could build one involvinga net triggered by a boot attached to a stick! A decision by the Court of Appeals earlier this year on March 20, 2018 is a good reminder that while creating a complex chain of events to cause a mouse trap to fall is all good and well for purposes of board games, the California courts are much less apt to entertain such convoluted chains for purposes of liability.
In that case, Paula J. Novak v. Continental Tire North America, the decedent’s daughter sued Continental Tire for her father’s death. She alleged that Continental Tire had failed to warn about defective tires in 2005, which later led to a tire blowout that injured her father and required him to use a motorized scooter due to limited mobility. Fast forward to 2011, he was crossing the street in said scooter when he was struck and ultimately killed by a vehicle. According to his doctor’s testimony, had he been walking instead of in a scooter he would not have died. So her theory was that Continental Tire was liable for the second accident that killed her father because, had it not placed him in the scooter in the first place, he never would have been crossing the street in a scooter at the time of the second accident and would still be alive. Whew, that is a mouthful.
The Court of Appeals put it a bit more succinctly: “She argues that defendants’ failure to warn about the dangers of rubber degradation in old tires caused the tire blowout in 2005; the blowout caused a collision; the collision caused disabling injuries to her father; the injuries caused her father to use a scooter; use of the scooter caused her father to have less maneuverability than a pedestrian; the father’s impaired maneuverability caused the 2011 collision between his scooter and a vehicle; and the scooter collision caused her father’s death.” Still a mouthful, but you get the plaintiff’s theory – once Continental Tire put her father in the scooter, they were liable for any scooter-related injuries arising in the future.
In dismissing this theory, the Court of Appeals focused on the concept of proximate cause: “The question is whether there is a sufficient connection between the risks created by defendants’ conduct and the injury Novak suffered to hold defendants responsible. It is this normative or evaluative aspect of proximate cause that the word “proximate” imperfectly conveys. This aspect of causation “ ‘focuses on public policy considerations. Because the purported [factual] causes of an event may be traced back to the dawn of humanity, the law has imposed additional “limitations on liability other than simple causality.” In plain English, the Court of Appeals basically found that you can’t hold someone liable simply because they are in the chain of causation. For example, if I buy the last box of Fruit Loops at Ralphs, thereby causing you to go to a different Ralphs where you are mauled by a circus bear that escaped from a traveling circus hiding in the parking lot from the police, I’m not liable. Sure, I’m technically the reason that you went to a different Ralphs, but the chain is so tenuous that, as a matter of law, at most we would say that I was a cause but not the proximate cause (setting aside the fact that there is also nothing wrong with buying the last box of Fruit Loops!)
In discussing proximate cause, the Court of Appeals primarily focused on one policy reasons for this principle – the notion of foreseeability . Going back to the Fruit Loops example, foreseeability simply asks if I should have foreseen that my purchase of the last box of Fruit Loops would cause you to get mauled by a bear. Foreseeable, in this context, is different from theoretically possible – of course any number of things could happen to you on the way to a different grocery store, but an encounter with a wandering circus bear escaped from fugitive circus folk is not anything that anyone could reasonably anticipate to enter into the sequence of events. At least, for your sake, we hope that such events are not typical in your life!
TLDR: If your theory of liability against a defendant looks like a game of Mouse Trap (or involves an escaped circus bear and a box of Fruit Loops), you should consider carefully whether their connection to your injury is a real cause, as opposed to simply being a link in the chain of events.
If you’re involved in a lawsuit or risk management and have any questions regarding current or potential legal issues, we would urge you to contact an attorney as soon as possible to obtain advice, guidance and representation. At Baker, Keener & Nahra, we have the experience, skill, and drive to get the best possible results for our clients, no matter the size of the case or the scope of the problem. So if we can be of any assistance to you, please contact us and let us know how we can help.